Poultry plant’s “inaction” led to teenager’s death, feds say

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Child labor violations up 283% since 2015

Child labor violations up 283% since 2015 02:20

Lax safety standards led to a 16-year-old worker getting pulled into a machine at a poultry plant in Hattiesburg, Mississippi — the second fatality at the facility in just over two years, the Department of Labor said on Tuesday.

The teenage sanitation employee at the Mar-Jac Poultry processing plant died on July 14, 2023, after getting caught in a rotating shaft in the facility’s deboning area, according to the agency. Procedures to disconnect power to the machine and prevent it from unintentionally starting during the cleaning were not followed despite a manager supervising the area, federal safety investigators found.

“Mar-Jac Poultry is aware of how dangerous the machinery they use can be when safety standards are not in place to prevent serious injury and death. The company’s inaction has directly led to this terrible tragedy, which has left so many to mourn this child’s preventable death,” OSHA Regional Administrator Kurt Petermeyer in Atlanta said in a statement.

The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is proposing $212,646 in penalties, an amount set by federal statute, while citing Mar-Jac with 14 serious violations as well other safety lapses.

Based in Gainesville, Georgia, Mar-Jac as been in business since 1954 and operates facilities in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. The poultry producer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The boy’s death is particularly egregious given a prior death at the plant involving an employee whose shirt sleeve was caught in a machine and pulled them in, resulting in fatal injuries, Petermeyer noted. “Following the fatal incident in May 2021, Mar-Jac Poultry should have enforced strict safety standards at its facility. Only two years later and nothing has changed.” 

Investigations uncover child labor at companies in U.S. 07:27

Guatemalan media identified the teenager as Duvan Pérez and said he moved to Mississippi from Huispache, in Guatemala, as NBC affiliate WDAM reported.

Federal officials in the U.S. also have an open child labor investigation involving the plant.

Under federal child labor laws, anyone younger than 18 is prohibited from working at slaughtering and meatpacking plants, as well as operating or cleaning any power-driven machinery used in such facilities.  

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 57 children 15 years and younger died from injuries sustained at work between 2018 and 2022; 68 teens ages 16-17 died on the job during the same five-year period.

The teen’s death in Mississippi came one month after a fatal accident involving another 16-year-old, who died a few days after getting trapped in a stick stacker machine at a sawmill in Wisconsin. The high school student’s death also served to amplify the growing number of children around the U.S. working in hazardous jobs meant for adults. 

Kate Gibson

Kate Gibson is a reporter for CBS MoneyWatch in New York.

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