Eastern Shore poultry processor fined $1 million for safety violations

State labor officials imposed a record $1 million fine Friday on an Eastern Shore poultry processor that inspectors say has ignored warnings to improve a dangerous workplace for more than a decade.

The penalty against Allen Family Foods Inc. is the largest ever levied in a single inspection by the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health division of the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, officials said. Inspectors say they found 51 violations at Allen's large processing plant in Hurlock while investigating a December incident in which a worker was seriously injured.

Labor and Industry Commissioner Ron DeJuliis said the state imposed such a high fine because the 90-year-old Seaford, Del., producer has racked up nearly 200 violations in the past dozen years, but has made little headway in correcting problems.

"The biggest problem we have here is repeated warnings over the years, and a lot of times they'd repair something or take care of the problem and then go right back to the same habits," DeJuliis said. "That flies in the face of the standards we set. They willfully ignored a lot of it."

An Allen executive said the third-generation family-run business plans to contest the citation, which it said resulted from the state adopting "a more aggressive enforcement policy."

"We have a good, professionally administered safety program, including inspections twice a year by an independent safety expert, which are monitored by MOSH's consultation unit," Tracy Morris, Allen's vice president of human resources, said in a statement. "The citation in this case is not an accurate reflection of our safety record."

Morris said Friday that the company had no further comment. The company has 15 days to appeal or pay the fine.

Allen, which employs 1,800 in Maryland, is among the largest poultry producers in the state, selling 600 million pounds of chicken a year, mostly in the Northeast and west to Chicago. Maryland ranked eighth in the nation in 2008 in both the number of broiler chickens — young chickens raised for meat — and pounds of broilers produced, according to the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc.

In December, an employee at the Hurlock plant suffered a serious hand injury while reaching beneath a conveyor belt that lacked shielding of moving machine parts, state labor officials said.

In other incidents, DeJuliis said, workers at the plant have suffered lacerations on hands or arms. Other violations have involved inadequate testing of equipment, improperly posted emergency signs, electrical problems and inadequate safety training and fire protection, he said.

Inspectors issued four citations alleging violations of occupational and safety and health laws. Maryland Labor Secretary Alexander M. Sanchez said the penalty shows the state's commitment to protecting workers from preventable on-the-job injuries, particularly in the poultry processing industry.

Nationally, the rate of nonfatal injuries and illnesses in the poultry and egg production industry is 52 percent higher than that for all industries combined, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

State officials said most poultry companies, and other businesses, make efforts to fix problems after they are cited for violations. And safety records in general have improved in many industries, such as construction, which historically had higher rates of workplace accidents.

"They are now competing [on] who can be the safest, and that's what we try to encourage," DeJuliis said.

Allen, which started as a small hatchery on a farm near Seaford in 1919, owns three hatcheries, three feed mills and three processing plants, including two on Maryland's Eastern Shore. It relies on about 500 independent and 28 company-owned farms to grow chickens.

Officials say inspectors have visited the company's Maryland locations about 16 times in the past 12 years, including seven times after accidents, and have cited the company for about 190 violations.

Before the record fine Friday, the largest penalty proposed by Maryland Occupational Safety and Health had been $910,220 for the 1989 collapse of a concrete bridge over the Baltimore-Washington Parkway near Laurel.


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