OSHA Steps Up Ergo, Medical Oversight At Poultry Plants With Hazard Alerts, Citations

OSHA strongly signaled its continued intent to stem ergonomics problems at poultry plants using every angle possible — inspections, fines and warnings to the industry — most recently by issuing citations against a Delaware chicken supplier and then following up months later with a series of “hazard alert letters” calling for voluntary measures.

OSHA invoked a controversial subject that first came up early this year when the agency questioned the employer’s medical management practices on the work site and whether the company was effectively identifying musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) hazards through employee injury reports.

The employer, Allen Harim Foods in Harbeson, DE, forcefully pushed back against OSHA’s charge the company had paid little attention to ergonomics, an issue worker safety advocates view at the top of the list of occupational hazards in places like chicken processing facilities. Allen Harim bashed the OSHA actions, saying the employer takes worker safety “very seriously” and will contest the citations, which preceded the “alert” correspondence.

OSHA alleged Wednesday (Sept. 2) that during a probe OSHA inspectors identified deficiencies in the facility’s medical management program “that contribute to the likelihood of workers developing” serious MSDs.

“In addition to deficient staffing; inadequate supervision; lack of experience and training on the part of the healthcare providers; and providers working outside their scope of practice, the employer uses a first aid station to evaluate and treat MSDs,” the agency said. “Inspectors also found that the employer did not refer injured workers to qualified outside healthcare providers for evaluation and treatment when appropriate and that workers were discouraged from reporting symptoms and injuries.”

Erin Patterson, OSHA area director in Wilmington, said the Harbeson facility’s medical management practices “create an environment of fear and distrust.”

“The use of the first aid station to prevent injuries from being reported as required by law undermines the purpose of on-site treatment and leaves employees at risk of further injury,” Patterson said. “Discouraging workers from reporting injuries is unacceptable.”

OSHA homing in on a poultry processor’s in-house medical practices closely mirrors a similar warning to a chicken processor last year, suggesting OSHA has latched onto the approach. OSHA, just as in the Allen Harim case, identified problems that the agency believed existed within Wayne Farms’ medical management program — mainly with the upshot that in-house nurses did not properly record MSDs as OSHA-recordable injuries by instead treating them a first-aid incidents. That warning also came independently of citations.

Industry has fumed at OSHA’s controversial tactic of criticizing in-house medical programs as a way to tackle the MSD issue, arguing that sending workers who report MSDs directly to the hospital or outside medical care represents a faulty approach and gives short shrift to the usefulness of occupational nurses in helping reduce MSD risks.

OSHA’s recent hazard letters, sent in August, raised numerous objections to the way Allen Harim runs its medical management program, largely coming from advice supplied by the agency’s Office of Occupational Medicine and Nursing. That branch of OSHA provides medical expertise for the safety of OSHA’s own inspectors but also provides general medical expertise to enforcement and compliance staff. The letters detail a string of recommendations OSHA believes the company should adopt to more effectively report, record and refer possible MSD-type injuries.

The hazard letters are based on inspector observations and took place well after the inspections and ensuing enforcement. OSHA in June cited Allen Harim for a total of nine violations, including a serious citation for an alleged failure to address MSD hazards.

Allen Harim will fight the citations. “We take worker safety issues very seriously and we work diligently every day to provide the safest possible environment for all our employees,” the company said in a statement emailed to Inside OSHA Online. “We strongly disagree with the claims made in the citations. Accordingly, Allen Harim has exercised its right to challenge those citations. We have filed a notice of intent to contest them in their entirety, inclusive of classifications, penalties, abatements and abatement dates. This action will move through OSHA’s system and updates will be made available as warranted.”

The company, which employs more than 1,600 people in the United States, as well as more than 200 independent growers and 25 company farms, said it was disappointed to receive the separate hazard alerts. “Our team is currently reviewing the contents of the letters to determine if they warrant voluntary corrective actions on our part.” — Christopher Cole (ccole@iwpnews.com)