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ICE Raids Could Increase Safety Hazards in Poultry Plants (1)

Aug. 8, 2019, 4:47 PMUpdated: Aug. 8, 2019, 9:27 PM

An Immigration Customs and Enforcement raid that resulted in the arrest of 680 people at food processing plants across Mississippi Aug. 7 could discourage vulnerable workers from reporting safety citations, worker safety advocates say.

Additionally, employees who remain working in the plant could face an increased risk of safety hazards, as “they’re left in a dangerous position,” said Dawn M. Lurie, an immigration compliance attorney at Seyfarth Shaw LLP in Washington.

In the face of this and other raids, advocates are worried about the health and welfare of employees in the poultry industry, as immigrant workers fearing deportation will be less likely to bring up safety concerns, while raid-depleted plants will be more vulnerable to accidents and health hazards.

“This will make an unsafe industry even more unsafe,” says Debbie Berkowitz, worker health and safety program director with the National Employment Law Project. “It sends an incredible signal to workers” to not speak up.

Bryan Cox, a spokesman for ICE, said that when the agency executes a search warrant, “management is notified and instructed to shut down the line, to make the situation safe first before any subsequent action is taken. It’s for officer safety and worker safety.”

With so many workers taken in the Mississippi raid, there will be a “slowdown of production, the company is going to miss targets, they’re going to be late on orders and deliveries, there will be spoilage,” which could lead to cleaning and maintenance issues and health concerns, Lurie said. Moreover, workers will be responsible for the job duties of those who were arrested, she said. “I’m sure this is all being looked at now,” she added.

Berkowitz said adding more work duties for employees would violate Occupational Safety and Health Administration law.

The raid occurred at seven agricultural processing plants across Mississippi, conducted in coordination with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi. U.S. Attorney D. Michael Hurst Jr. plans to prosecute any possible federal criminal charges that result from the raid, according to an ICE statement.

Over 700 Poultry Inspections by OSHA

Poultry processing is a uniquely hazardous industry. OSHA in the past five years has inspected poultry processors nationwide 737 times, according to the agency database. The most commonly cited hazards during the most recent period for which data is available, October 2017 through September 2018, were violations of lockout/tagout provisions of the OSH Act, which often result in amputations.

Various Koch Foods Inc. and Peco Foods plants were targets of raids. OSHA data shows it has inspected Koch’s Mississippi plants 11 times in the past five years. The Illinois-based company employs roughly 13,000 workers, according to its website. Peco Foods’ Mississippi plants were inspected six times in the same time frame.

The companies didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, also in Mississippi, where poultry processing is one of the state’s most dangerous industries, Mar-Jac Poultry in Hattiesburg last year was issued one of the state’s biggest safety fines, $44,344 for improper hazardous waste and emergency response violations.

Raids and Poultry Processing

Advocates worry that the already dangerous poultry industry is made less safe by immigration raids and the threat of them.

“These raids will give the green light to companies with already egregious safety records to further cut corners and endanger workers because workers will be too frightened to speak up,” Berkowitz said. She added that a large portion of poultry processing workers are undocumented.

Workers’ rights groups say undocumented workers are afraid to come forward about workplace safety issues for fear that OSHA inspections will lead to ICE raids.

In June 2018, ICE agents in Ohio raided Fresh Mark Inc. meat processing plants in Canton, Massillon, and Salem, leading to the arrest of 146 workers, all of whom were suspected of being in the country illegally. Two weeks prior, the company had been issued 13 citations and a $211,194 fine after a worker was killed by a meat-skinning machine.

Lurie warns that she expects more immigration raids of food processing plants in the future. “I think we’re absolutely going to see more of these enforcement actions,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Fatima Hussein in Washington at fhussein@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at snadel@bloomberglaw.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bloomberglaw.com