JBS fine highlights meatpacking dangers

GREELEY – JBS USA agreed to pay $100,000 in fines to settle safety and health violations handed down by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration just two-and-a-half weeks before the death of one of its employees in its giant meat processing plant, according to federal documents.

The federal agency had accused JBS USA in Greeley of 20 health and safety violations at the company’s beef processing plant more than a year ago. JBS, which did not admit to the allegations, also must take steps to make its workplace safer as part of the settlement.

The settlement in May followed an inspection by OSHA in December 2012 that revealed potential for conditions that could lead to amputations and fall hazards in elevated work areas, among others.

Despite the settlement and the improved safety measures, JBS employee Ralph E. Horner, 54, of Wellington died June 10 after becoming trapped in a conveyor. Horner was pronounced dead at the scene after he was found by employees.

Authorities have ruled out foul play in Horner’s death, which no one seemed to have witnessed, said Sgt. Joe Tymkowych of the Greeley Police Department.

ldquo;He was probably inspecting … which was part of his job duties, just to make sure things ran smooth, and somehow got caught up in the system,” Tymkowych said. “The coroner has indicated that it was an accidental death.”

Autopsy and toxicology reports have not yet been completed, according to the Weld County Coroner’s Office. OSHA is investigating Horner’s death, OSHA spokesman Juan Rodriguez said.

The safety violations and Horner’s subsequent death underscore the dangers of meatpacking, an industry that involves work with machinery that processes heavy cattle carcasses. The last employee death at JBS occurred in 2008 when a worker was hit by a truck outside the plant.

“There’s no apple-to-apple comparison for any other type of worker in this country,” said Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 union that represents JBS employees. “They’re slaughtering a giant animal, working around very dangerous equipment.

“A lot of injuries do occur in this industry.”

JBS representatives did not respond to requests for comment for this story, although the company had said in June 2013 that it would work closely with federal officials to find remedies to ensure employees’ safety. The company employs more than 4,200 people in Greeley, where its beef plant’s daily processing capacity totals 5,400 cattle.

In a separate case in July 2013, OSHA accused Greeley-based chicken processor Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. (Nasdaq: PPC), in which JBS USA owns a controlling interest, of 11 safety violations at its De Queen, Ark., plant. Pilgrim’s Pride, which faces $170,000 in OSHA fines, is accused of exposing workers to hazardous chemicals, among other allegations.

Pilgrim’s Pride has disputed the allegations, Rodriguez said. The company said at the time that it took the allegations seriously, and added that no employees were injured as a result of the alleged conditions.

Tim Neubauer, senior consultant for the Itasca, Ill.-based National Safety Council, a nonprofit focused on preventing injuries, said the meat processing industry has developed leading standards to prevent ergonomic injuries. However, he said that the industry relies on an entry-level workforce often consisting of immigrants who have trouble communicating with managers and who also tolerate higher levels of risks.  

“Those are two pretty big hurdles,” said Neubauer, whose team travels worldwide to advise companies on safety matters. “You have the language barrier and different levels of acceptable risk.”

In 1992, meatpacking plants had 44.4 nonfatal injuries per 100 workers. Poultry processing saw 23.2 cases per 100 workers. Overall during the same period, private industry had a rate of 8.9 cases per 100 workers.

By 2012, the animal processing injury rate had improved, but still remained higher than the average across all private industries.

Nonfatal injuries in meatpacking had declined to 5.8 cases per 100 workers. In poultry processing, workers had 4.9 injuries per 100 workers. The average across private industry, however, totaled 3.4 cases per 100 workers.

Lorann Stallones, an occupational epidemiologist at Colorado State University, said agribusiness workers have greater exposure to risks than do other workers. Industries such as meatpacking tend to employ novice workers who are less familiar with tasks. Meatpackers also encourage speedy work, increasing risks for employees using cutting equipment and conveyor belts.

“The training that goes on in some of these places is minimal,” said Stallones, director of the Colorado Injury Control Research Center. “All of those things create a risky workplace.”

Stallones said companies may think of safer workplaces as less productive ones, but she argued that both can exist at the same time. Businesses should get involved with safety organizations to help reduce risk of injury to their employees, she said.

“You have to match the need for productivity with the value of healthy, safe workers,” she said. “I’m not sure we’ve done that particularly well.”

Steve Lynn can be reached at 970-232-3147, 303-630-1968 or slynn@bizwestmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveLynnBW.

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