By disregarding the health and safety of their employees, some of the most prominent companies in the food industry have created situations that led to workers being injured or killed on the job, according to a new report by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH), an advocacy group.
“The incidents that take workers’ lives or expose them to dangerous risks are not ‘freak accidents,’” read the report. “These events can be foreseen—and prevented—if employers follow proper safety protocols.”
Released in honor of Workers’ Memorial Week, National COSH’s “Dirty Dozen” report is an annual list of “egregious” employers, all of whom are accused of exposing their workers to preventable hazards. Companies are selected based on their prominence and the degree to which they allegedly endangered their employees. This year, nearly half of the companies on National COSH’s list are involved in farming or the food industry, and the report highlights serious labor violations throughout the supply chain.
The report also includes several companies that workers are attempting to unionize. Amazon leads the “Dirty Dozen” list, and National COSH pays particular attention to abuses in its warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, which has held votes to unionize twice in the past year, falling short both times. Two warehouse workers died within a six-hour period there in November, 2021; according to Amazon worker Isaiah Thomas, one of the workers had asked to go home hours before he died of a stroke on the job, but HR told him he did not have enough unpaid time off to take sick leave. Amazon has disputed Thomas’s account of events.
National COSH also points a finger at Starbucks, which allegedly refused to provide employees in Buffalo, New York, with masks or testing for Covid-19. According to the report, 30 percent of the store’s workforce subsequently tested positive for Covid-19 or were exposed to it, prompting employees to go on strike. They formed a union last year, and workers are now organizing union drives at more than 200 Starbucks locations around the country.
The exploits of other “Dirty Dozen” companies are less highly publicized. Foundation Food Group/Gold Creek Foods runs a poultry processing plant in Gainesville, Georgia, where its employees have been subjected to three major chemical leaks in the past 14 months, according to the report. Six workers died in a liquid nitrogen leak in January, 2021, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has levied over $1 million in penalties thus far. At Ernst Nursery and Supply, a tree farm in St. Paul, Oregon, farmworker Sebastian Francisco Perez died of hypothermia and dehydration in June, 2021 after working through 104-degree heat. An investigation by Oregon OSHA found that Perez had never received training on extreme heat hazards, and the agency had previously cited Ernst for failing to provide water and toilets to its farmworkers. In a closed conference with OSHA, an Ernst company official blamed Perez for his own death, claiming that employees should “be accountable for how they push their body.”
The “Dirty Dozen” report also explores the toll Covid-19 has taken on American workers, though it stresses how little we know about the pandemic’s impact. “We are still unable to answer a basic question,” the report’s authors write. “Exactly how many people in the U.S. have become ill and died from workplace exposure to COVID-19?” According to OSHA, at least 1,945 employees died at work from the virus between 2020 and 2021, but National COSH claims that the agency’s number is a gross underestimate. Jordan Barab, a former deputy assistant secretary of labor at OSHA, has said the pandemic is responsible for “the greatest workplace death toll in modern American history.”
A FERN investigation, from spring 2020 to summer 2021, found that food-system workers have been particularly hard hit. At least 91,717 meatpacking workers, food processing workers, and farmworkers contracted the virus in the first year and a half of the pandemic, and at least 466 died.
National COSH notes that OSHA still has not developed a standard set of precautions that protects all workers from Covid-19 infections, and that the agency is not planning to do so. In addition to its “Dirty Dozen” report, the group has also compiled Killed at Work, a database of workplace fatalities, and launched WorkedUp.us, which highlights workers who are advocating for better conditions.