By Greg Barnes NC Health News
And Nicolas Baintrub Enlace Latino NC
North Carolina labor officials are investigating allegations that chemicals being used at a Mountaire Farms chicken-processing plant in Robeson County are making workers sick.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Labor’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health said in an email Thursday that the division has begun an inspection of the Mountaire Farms plant in Lumber Bridge, a town about 18 miles southwest of Fayetteville.
The inspection began after the North Carolina Justice Center filed a complaint dated Aug. 19 with the labor department on behalf of an anonymous worker.
The complaint, filed by Justice Center attorney Carol Brooke, alleges that chemical use at the plant has made multiple workers sick. The complaint says Mountaire “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 a section of the complaint asking for a description of the hazard. “There is some days when the odor is better and others (sic) 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 wrote that workers have reported recent deaths at the plant that they believe occurred because of the chemicals, though she said she has not substantiated the allegation.
Mountaire corporate spokeswoman Catherine Bassett disputes the complaint.
“Worker safety is always our number one priority and we take all complaints seriously. However, this complaint contains a lot of misinformation,” Bassett wrote in an email to NC Health News. “There have been no changes in ammonia and/or bleach at our Lumber Bridge plant, and no complaints from employees concerning ammonia or bleach. We are not aware of any fatalities or injuries related to these chemicals either. We welcomed OSHA’s visit yesterday and they offered no immediate concerns and we await their final report.”
According to the Justice Center’s complaint, one worker suffered a lung infection and missed a couple of weeks of work. He tested negative for the coronavirus three times. At least one worker has gone to a hospital for treatment, the complaint alleges, and some Mountaire workers went to the plant’s nurse and were given medications that did not help.
The complaint says many workers have reported the issue to the companies that hired them or to their Mountaire supervisors, and multiple workers have quit because the situation is not improving. Mountaire workers, largely Latinos in North Carolina, are often hired by contracting companies.
Jennifer Haigwood, a spokeswoman for the Department of Labor, said in an email to NC Health News that the Division of Occupational Safety and Health began an inspection of the Mountaire plant on Aug. 24. The division typically does not respond to requests for comment on an investigation until an inspection is complete.
Latino advocate has heard the complaints
Ilana Dubester, an advocate for food plant employees, said she began hearing about a chemical scare at the Mountaire plant from workers about two to three weeks ago.
“What they’re saying is in the past two to three months — it was a little unclear to me, a timeline — the plant increased the amount of chemical being used to clean the chicken and increased the ammonia and bleach to really high levels because of a potential Salmonella or some other kind of outbreak in the chicken,” said Dubester, leader of The Hispanic Liaison – or El Vinculo Hispano — in Siler City.
“So basically they dunk the chicken in chemicals and as the chicken goes through the line the workers are getting sick,” Dubester said. “The smell is really strong. It’s causing them headaches, some of them faint, they get dizzy. Cough, throat aches, their eyes burn, nose turns red. Several people have had to go to the hospital.”
Dubester said some plant workers allege that coworkers have died because of the chemicals, but she acknowledged that she has no proof.
“I’m still trying to figure out who these people are and how they died,” she said.
Dubester said workers told her they have complained to their supervisors.
“The workers are afraid to talk because they fear retaliation, and many hundreds of workers are affected by this. Everybody who works in cutting chicken, plus others,” Dubester said.
Worker alleges illnesses
Among those workers is Rosa Alvarez, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. Alvarez complains about the same chemical smells and ailments as those described by Dubester and Brooke. Alvarez said workers are experiencing headaches, vomiting, dizziness, stomach pains, fainting and diarrhea.
“I felt a lot of sore throat, vomiting, dizziness,” she said. “I go out every day with a headache, my eyes burn a lot and my nose runs as if I had the flu. At first the smell was unbearable, but now it has lessened a bit.
“I work on the production line. It is very tiring work, and one needs to breathe well from the physical exertion. Sometimes I pull down the mask to breathe easier, but it is impossible because the chemical is too strong. It makes me sick to my stomach. And the bosses don’t give me permission to leave.
Alvarez said she and other workers have complained about the conditions in the plant.
“When we complain, they ignore us,” she said. “The voice of Hispanics is not valid, as if we were not human beings. I have filed many complaints and nobody does anything. They don’t protect us. They don’t care how employees feel.”
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.
Greg Barnes is the environmental health reporter for NC Health News
Nicolas Baintrub is the political reporter for Enlace Latino NC