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Written by AskTheLawyers.com™
If you like chicken or turkey, be sure to thank the workers that are suffering injuries and illness while processing it. For years, workers have tried to take a stand against their unscrupulous employers, but the Government Accountability Office has revealed that the Food and Drug Administration and United States Dietary Association (USDA) don’t even consider the well-being of the workers when chemicals are chosen for use in food. They barely consider the safety of consumers. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t even have safety guidelines to limit workers’ exposure to the notoriously dangerous chemicals, peracetic acid (PAA) and chlorine, chemicals that the Material Safety Data Sheet shows are capable of “damage to most internal organs” and “lung damage, emotional disturbance, or death.”
One worker had enough of being exposed to these harmful conditions at work, so she did something about it.
Jessica Robertson finally took a stand against her employer, a turkey processing plant, because her work there as an inspector was making her sick---literally. Her service with this food provider not only took a toll on her body (she had three elbow injuries and a severe nerve injury to her neck due to constant repetitive strain), but the PAA was making her suffer shortness of breath with coughing fits and itchy eyes. It made her lose her voice by the end of each week and caused her nose to bleed onto her pillow as she slept.
It didn’t just affect her. Her colleagues were also suffering from respiratory problems as well as headaches and nausea. Other co-workers in different departments had health issues due to chemical exposure, too. For example, employees in the bagging section for the meat developed strange lesions all over their hands, and some had to finally be sent home. Surprisingly, despite the fact that PAA causes so much suffering to workers, its use (along with chlorine and other chemicals) has become a common go-to for bacteria removal. This is even after an inspector in a New York poultry plant died from his lungs bleeding out.
Certainly, there is a reason to be concerned about adverse effects upon the health of consumers, especially if workers are suffering so much because of it, but the use of these chemicals has only become more commonplace in the poultry industry. You should know that they have been used in the food industry for over a decade to more aggressively kill bacteria and match the growing speeds of processing lines. Washington Post reported in 2013 that health inspectors from the Agricultural Department told them that processing plants are escaping notice of contaminants by turning to these chemicals.
Chemicals were already a problem at the time when New York poultry inspector Jose Navarro was exposed to a large amount, and he ultimately died from his lungs bleeding out. Despite this problem, the Center for Science in the Public Interest reported in December 2017 that the National Chicken Council wanted poultry producers to have no limit on their line speeds where they slaughter and process chickens. More speed justifies more chemical spraying. Currently, the rate allows for 140 birds to be killed and inspected per minute, but there has been a USDA pilot program where the slaughter process was bumped up to 175 birds per minute. If the council got its way, inspectors would likely find themselves examining over 200 carcasses per minute (3 carcasses per second). It seems pretty impossible to thoroughly examine even one thing in a single second. Furthermore, all of this really changes one’s image of a cute little country farm, right?
The FDA currently has no current independent research regarding all of the chemical sprays that are used, and good luck getting any real answers from them regarding research by anyone else, according to The Intercept. The European Union has prohibited these sprays for years, and their farming practices are not similar to American factory farms.
A certain form 4791 was filed by Robertson and McClellan (a fellow worker) repeatedly, but they weren’t taken seriously by the USDA’s Denver office. Only minimal changes were made, such as moving the sprayers and occasionally lowering the amount of spraying on some days. Regardless, eventually the spraying noticeably increased and Robertson ended up in the emergency room.
Unfortunately, life in Sanpete County didn’t offer much for employment options, and Robertson’s husband is partially disabled, so she needed to be there for him. Furthermore, the beautiful nature around her home was deeply sacred to her, so she ultimately decided to stay at the poultry plant and keep hoping for positive change.
While working in the old and poorly ventilated building owned by Norbest, she kept track of her symptoms in a journal. She and McClellan were finally able to get confirmation from their doctor that chemical exposure was at least partially to blame for their “work-related asthma” diagnosis. Unfortunately, this basically just led the USDA to claim that they only had a sensitivity to PAA, so they transferred them out of state to cow slaughterhouses to inspect beef. She originally fought to stay in Utah, but now she was forced to leave for a job in Idaho after speaking out. It is highly possible that this was actually retaliation from the negligent industry.
The two women, Robertson and McClellan, were not just speaking out for themselves, but also for other coworkers that were undocumented immigrants that couldn’t take the risk. Truly, a significant amount of workers in the meat industry are often immigrants, and largely undocumented. But that is a whole other subject entirely.
Other than taking part in advocacy efforts and simply spreading the word, which is important as well, it is worthwhile to consider contacting a lawyer to determine what options are available. Being a whistleblower (or supporting one) can be a daunting experience, but it is worth the while. In situations like this, there is much that goes on behind closed doors, so workers might be the only individuals that see a company’s gross exploitation of workers as well as public trust. Undoubtedly, workers who blow the whistle on harmful practices should contact an attorney first to make sure they're going about things in the best way.Reach out now to an experienced and caring employment attorney. Enough is enough.
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