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Two Worker Deaths in January Show Need for Reforms in U.S. Poultry Slaughterhouses

Thursday, January 23, 2020
Press Contacts: 

Contact: Roger Kerson, 734.645.0535; roger@nationalcosh.org
Contact: Amy Lebowitz, 646.200.5322; amy.lebowitz@berlinrosen.com

Tragic New Year for Poultry Workers
Two Worker Deaths in January Show Need for
Reforms in U.S. Poultry Slaughterhouses

Safety advocates call for end to line speed-ups and
an increase in wall-to-wall safety inspections

SAN DIEGO – As the new year begins, families, friends, and co-workers are mourning the deaths of two poultry plant workers in Alabama and Georgia.

On Monday, January 6th, Gabriel Seth Brutley, 35, died at a JBS/Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Guntersville, Alabama. He lost his life to a mechanical lift. The company is not releasing more details about this tragedy.

On Wednesday, January 15th, Chit Tuay, 38, died at a Fieldale Farms plant in Murrayville, Georgia. Tuay died while cleaning a scalder – a machine used in poultry processing – when he fell into the equipment and broke his neck.

“Neither of these tragic deaths was an ‘accident,’” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH). “Poultry is a dangerous industry where workers face injury rates higher than the national average for all private industry. If proper safety protocols had been implemented – with the required safety equipment, the required training, and full worker involvement – these fatalities could have been prevented. Gabriel Brutley and Chit Tuay should be alive and with their families today.”

Both the Fieldale Farms Murrayville plant and the JBS/Pilgrim’s Pride Guntersville plant recently received special waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) allowing them to increase line speeds from butchering 140 chickens per minute to 175 birds per minute. The waivers were granted by USDA despite an alarming record of recent preventable fractures, lacerations, amputations, and workplace fatalities at both facilities. This includes a dozen serious incidents in both plants since 2015, according to data compiled by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and National COSH.

See here for a timeline of safety incidents at JBS/Pilgrim’s Pride.

See here for a timeline of safety incidents at Fieldale Farms.

“When chicken slaughter plants increase the number of birds they kill per minute, production for every worker – including sanitation workers – ramps up as everyone works harder and faster to process and pack the product and sanitize equipment for the increase in output,” said Debbie Berkowitz, worker health and safety program director at the National Employment Law Project. “This increases the likelihood of serious injuries among poultry workers, who are disproportionately people of color and immigrants. The USDA granted these special waivers despite strong opposition from workers, public health advocates, and consumer groups.”

To prevent future tragedies, two national advocacy organizations – the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) and the National Employment Law Project (NELP) – called today for USDA to stop issuing waivers for increased line speeds. In addition, the groups said OSHA should conduct wall-to-wall safety inspections in the facilities where the fatalities occurred and increase full inspections throughout the industry.

The deaths of Brutley and Tuay took place over a period of just nine days in January. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, there were five worker deaths in the poultry industry during the entire year.

“Workers should never have to sacrifice their lives for a job,” said Berkowitz. “OSHA must do a thorough investigation and assure that these companies are held accountable for any violations of the law.”
 
Sadly, these two recent deaths are not the first preventable fatalities at Fieldale Farms or JBS/Pilgrim’s Pride.

Deaths by collision and unguarded equipment at JBS/Pilgrim’s Pride: Brutley’s death is the second fatality at a JBS/Pilgrim’s Pride plant within the past year. In February 2019, a worker died at the company’s Lexington, Georgia facility when he was struck by an industrial truck while catching chickens for slaughter at 4 am.

In 2012, a Pilgrim’s Pride worker named Christopher Chin died on the job at the company’s Canton, Georgia plant, while attempting to remove a piece of cardboard from a hopper. The preventable death “resulted from equipment that could easily have been guarded," said U.S. OSHA Atlanta-East Area Office Director Bill Fulcher in 2013, following an investigation into Chin’s death.

In addition, according to OSHA records, at least four workers have suffered major injuries since 2016 at the Guntersville plant where Brutley died earlier this month.

Death by electrocution at Fieldale Farms: In July 2015, Ricardo Aburto died at Fieldale’s Murrayville, Georgia plant when exposed to an uninsulated wire while repairing a light fixture. The company was cited by OSHA and fined $4,900 for the safety violations that led to Aburto’s death.

“When large companies like JBS/Pilgrim’s Pride and Fieldale Farms fail to make safety a priority, it makes no sense to allow them to speed up their lines, which makes every working day even more dangerous for poultry workers,” said Martinez. “The workers who labor to put food on our tables – like all workers – have a right to safe working environment.”

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National COSH links the efforts of local worker health and safety coalitions in communities across the United States, advocating for elimination of preventable hazards in the workplace.
For more information, please visit coshnetwork.org. Follow us at National Council for Occupational Safety and Health on Facebook, and @NationalCOSH on Twitter.

The National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting low-wage and unemployed workers.
For more about NELP, visit www.nelp.org. Follow NELP on Twitter at @NelpNews.