If you ask a friend to name a dangerous occupation most people would think first of logging, firefighting or, perhaps, law enforcement. But near the top of nearly any list of dangerous jobs is something few of us think about: working in a poultry plant.
That fact was highlighted by a recent incident in Georgia. According to a report in the New York Times, six people died and 11 were injured late last month when “a line carrying liquid nitrogen ruptured.” One of the injured people who required hospitalization was a firefighter responding to the incident.
Union officials accused the plant’s owners of negligence and of ignoring health and safety protocols. According to the newspaper, in 2015 the plant “was fined more than $100,000 for about a dozen safety violations.” Another $40,000 in fines followed the next year and “in 2017, two employees underwent amputations, including one of two fingers after his left hand got caught in machinery that he was cleaning.”
The question, then, is not whether poultry processing is dangerous work. It is whether the law offers workers the protections they need when they report each day for such a dangerous job.
Here in Oregon the most important case governing questions like these is the Oregon Supreme court’s 1996 ruling in Kilminster v Day Management Company. This was a wrongful death case brought by the family of a man who died when he fell 400 feet from the spot where he was working atop a radio tower. The man had frequently complained to his employer about inadequate safety equipment and, as the court put it, “was apprehensive about climbing with the equipment” he was given. The court found that the company had knowingly cut corners on safety and had done so also knowing that any resulting accidents could be fatal.
This falls squarely within Oregon’s legal definition of an industrial accident, and is also clearly in violation of ORS 654.305, which lays out the obligations of employers in hazardous occupations. Because of Kilminster and the ways our laws have developed in the decades since it was decided an Oregon employer or the employers agent (including sub-contractors working on behalf of the main employer) are required to ensure not only that employees have appropriate safety gear but also that they are trained in its correct use and that the gear itself is maintained properly.
As an Oregon wrongful death and industrial accident attorney I often find myself reviewing cases that turn on these questions of employer responsibility. When an employer’s business is inherently dangerous – be that logging, poultry processing or anything else – it is especially incumbent on the bosses to do the right thing where their employees are concerned and on our legal system to enforce compliance.
Far too often we see outsourcing used by larger companies as a way to evade their own responsibilities (the same also applies to government itself, as I have often noted in my writings on the privatization of prisons and prison services). The law offers powerful tools to hold people accountable for their actions here in Oregon. Hopefully the families reeling from this tragedy in Georgia will be able to obtain a similar measure of justice.
New York Times: 6 Die After Liquid Nitrogen Leak at Georgia Poultry Plant