BERLIN -- Alarmed at the deaths of seven poultry workers across the country since April, the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance is calling for a nationwide investigation of safety and working conditions at plants owned by industry giant Tyson Foods Inc.
Marching with hand-made signs, about 30 members of the alliance -- which includes environmentalists, poultry workers, growers, union organizers and religious activists -- rallied yesterday outside the Tyson plant where a worker died Oct. 8.
Alliance members then traveled to Washington to ask the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Labor to look closely at Tyson and the rest of the industry, which processes 3 billion pounds of chicken in 11 Delmarva plants each year.
Tractor-trailers loaded with live chickens bound for slaughter at the 88,000-square-foot processing plant roared by as alliance members lined up seven empty chairs bearing the names of workers who have perished in unrelated accidents at Tyson chicken houses or plants in five states since April.
"We want to make clear that this is a runaway company in a runaway industry," said Rev. Jim Lewis, the Episcopal priest who heads the Delaware-based alliance. "Seven deaths in five months is unheard of. Tyson is batting seven for seven and we want to know why."
The news conference was watched by several Tyson managers dressed in brown company uniforms, but no one attempted to interfere with half a dozen speakers who criticized the company for everything from safety concerns to low wages to anti-union bias.
Ed Nicholson, a spokesman for the Arkansas-based company that produces more than 25 percent of the chicken sold to U.S. consumers each year, pointed to what he called Tyson's extensive efforts to ensure worker safety for the company's 60,000 employees.
"This has been tragic, something that has been very hard on a lot of folks here," Nicholson said. "But the record of safety at this plant and others is very clear. Prior to these cases, we had not had a fatality in over three years at any of our 62 plants across the country."
According to plant manager Terry Baker, the death of Charles Shepperd, 44, of Salisbury was the first fatality at the processing and distribution center in Berlin since the plant opened in the 1950s.
Scrutiny is 'welcome'
"We are deeply saddened by what has happened," said Baker. "As far as any investigation by OSHA or the Labor Department, we would welcome it."
Shepperd was struck on the head by rotating paddles and killed while cleaning a chiller tank. According to department administrator Joseph Seidel, Maryland Occupational Safety and Health investigators have not determined the cause of the accident.
Five of the recent deaths took place in states that administer their own job safety programs.
OSHA to monitor probes
OSHA officials said yesterday they would monitor state-run investigations in Kentucky, Virginia and Maryland. The federal agency is also investigating one death in Texas and has imposed fines of more than $59,000 in an Arkansas fatality.
Sharon Bradley, a licensed practical nurse who is the safety coordinator for day-shift workers in Berlin, said she believes twice-monthly safety committee meetings that involve managers and workers are effective.
"I wasn't there; we don't know exactly what happened," Bradley said. "But as far as I can see, there was nothing that could have prevented it."
Litany of charges
Surrounded by reporters and television cameras, alliance members lambasted Tyson for what they said are deplorable working conditions, low wages and workplace harassment of union organizers.
Union organizers from the United Food and Commercial Workers criticized Tyson for putting profits ahead of worker safety.
However, company officials noted that all hourly employees at the Berlin plant are represented by the UFCW or by the Teamsters union.