Congressional Leader Calls for Probe of Meatpacking Company
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The head of a House subcommittee says he will seek an expanded federal investigation into complaints of unsafe working conditions and unreported on- the-job injuries at the nation’s largest meatpacking company.
Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., on Wednesday said he would ask the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to conduct a comprehensive probe into reports of violations by IBP Inc., an Occidental Petroleum Co. subsidiary with 18,000 workers in eight states.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union filed a complaint with OSHA in January accusing IBP of keeping fraudulent health and safety records at its slaughter and meatpacking plant in Dakota City, Neb. In March, OSHA opened a formal investigation into conditions at the plant.
Robert L. Peterson, IBP’s chairman and chief executive officer, maintained at a hearing Wednesday that his company is ″committed to worker safety and to maintaining accurate and complete records of those circumstances in which injuries do occur.″
But his defenses didn’t satisfy Lantos, who grilled Peterson at the hearing of the Government Operations subcommittee on employment and housing. Lantos called the company’s employee turnover rate ″astronomical″ and suggested it was due to ″the very large number of workers being injured or maimed.″
Lantos said a cynic might conclude that IBP encouraged high turnover because it holds down wages, vacation time and costs for employees’ fringe benefits, but Peterson insisted ″we do care for our workers and we aren’t interested in turning them over.″
IBP also came under fire at a March subcommittee hearing when workers testified about treacherous safety hazards and on-the-job injuries that had gone unreported to the OSHA.
Lantos said it appears that underreporting of injuries occurs in the meatpacking industry in an attempt to ″avoid and evade OSHA inspection,″ since the agency exempts companies from full-scale review if injury and illness rates are below the national average.
″In many cases, serious injuries could have been prevented had there been a wall-to-wall inspection,″ Lantos said.
He noted that last month, OSHA proposed fines of $690,000 against the John Morrell Co. for record-keeping violations at its meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls, S.D.
In the case of IBP there were ″a very, very large number of instances where injuries which indisputably should have been entered in OSHA logs did not appear,″ Lantos said.
Peterson said that a decrease in the number of injuries reported to OSHA reflected the company’s successful campaign to improve safety, and that any record-keeping deficiencies were due to confusion ″about what is and is not recordable.″
Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., said a review of the company’s record ″certainly leaves one with some suspicion that you may well be trying to keep OSHA out of your plants.″
Peterson said unfair charges against the company had been made as part of a ″vicious″ campaign by the UFCW, which represents workers at IBP’s Dakota City plant. He said the plant shut down in December in a labor dispute and reopened in March with non-union workers.
After Peterson testified, UFCW said it was asking OSHA to expand its probe beyond Dakota City because of new reports of fraudulent record-keeping at the company’s plant in Emporia, Kan., and elsewhere.
Rep. Joseph DioGuardi, R-N.Y., said OSHA’s enforcement practices were ″as much a target″ of the subcommittee’s concern as was IBP. He said ″something is wrong with the way OSHA is administering this part of the federal budget.″