By Greg Barnes
The state Department of Labor announced Tuesday that it is fining Mountaire Farms in Lumber Bridge $21,000 for failing to provide employees effective information and training on hazardous chemicals and for failing to make them wear eye or face protection.
The fines come after the North Carolina Justice Center filed a complaint dated Aug. 19 on behalf of an anonymous worker at the chicken-processing plant. The Labor Department’s Occupational Health and Safety Division started investigating within a week afterward.
The complaint, filed by Justice Center attorney Carol Brooke, alleged that Mountaire workers were getting sick after the company “either increased or changed its use of chemicals in response to a salmonella issue.”
“There is a strong odor of ammonia in many areas of the plant,” Brooke wrote in her complaint. “There is some days when the odor is better and other days it is apparent from the moment you enter the plant. People are having symptoms that include sore throat, persistent cough, chest pain, swollen tongue, dizziness, headaches, and fainting.”
Brooke, who had not been provided a copy of the Department of Labor’s findings by Tuesday afternoon, said her organization could not verify whether Mountaire had changed chemicals as a result of a salmonella outbreak.
The Labor Department did not say whether it found that workers had gotten sick from the chemicals, whether the chemicals had changed or whether there had been a salmonella outbreak.
“At this time, the department is unable to release further details about the specifics of the investigation and will be unable to do so until the case is officially closed,” a Labor Department spokeswoman said in an email.
Mountaire did not respond to a request for comment. According to the Labor Department’s notice, the problems must be fixed and the company must pay the fines within 15 days, unless it appeals them.
Mountaire was fined $14,000 for failing to provide employees effective information and training on hazardous chemicals when they were initially assigned to their work area and whenever a new chemical hazard was introduced.
The Department of Labor said the chemicals being used on the plant’s deboning lines 1-4 and in evisceration included corrosive Spectrum 22, which contains peracetic and acetic acids and hydrogen peroxide.
“The hazards of this chemical are pretty well known in the poultry industry,” said Brooke, the lawyer who filed the complaint. “So I think it would be hard to say that they didn’t know that it could cause these problems.”
The fines were doubled for this violation because the Labor Department found the same one in May 2019.
“I’m curious how they decided it was not a willful violation given that,” Brooke said.
A willful violation would have resulted in a fine up to $70,000.
“I think this is a clear example of when food safety is prioritized over worker safety,” Brooke said.
She said the chemical can be applied safely if it is used in a fully contained system so that workers aren’t exposed.
“But obviously it was not at Mountaire,” she said.
In the other citation, the Labor Department found that Mountaire “did not ensure that each affected employee uses appropriate eye or face protection when exposed to eye or face hazards from flying particles, molten metal, liquid chemicals, acids or caustic liquids, chemical gases or vapors, or potentially injurious light radiation.”
Brooke said dozens of Mountaire workers reported to the NC Justice Center last year that the chemicals Mountaire was using had made them sick.
Brooke said the center followed up with some of those workers within the last month or two.
“They reported that they’re still having problems, that it has not changed,” she said.
Mountaire’s Lumber Bridge plant has about 3,400 workers.
In 2009, an ammonia leak at the plant killed one worker and injured at least three others, according to published reports. The leak was caused by a ruptured supply line. Mountaire was cited for 20 serious safety violations and fined more than $73,000.
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