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Eric Wingerter

Broken Hearts & Severed Parts: Injuries at Smithfield Foods’ Tar Heel Plant

Donald Turner had only been on the job six weeks when a band saw sliced through two of his fingertips. One was severed completely while the other hung by a thread. At Smithfield Packing, the world’s largest hog processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, injuries this severe are not terribly uncommon.

Sadly, what happened next was par for the course as well. Before releasing him to a hospital, the company clinic put his finger on ice and subjected Donald to a drug test. The test came back clean, but the process took so long that by the time Donald reached the hospital, the ice had melted and his finger could not be re-attached.

Donald’s story is one of many tales of injury and mistreatment among workers at Smithfield’s Tar Heel Plant. The video below highlights a few more, although these still represent just a handful of tragic stories from the plant.

In some industries, labor battles center around wages and benefits. But in the decade-long struggle to bring a union into Smithfield’s Tar Heel plant, workers are still dealing with the most basic issues of safety and health—issues that have changed distressingly little in the hundred years since Upton Sinclair outraged Americans with The Jungle, his classic meat packing industry exposé.

Pork processing is dangerous work, to be sure. And in a plant like Tar Heel, where five thousand workers slaughter upwards of 32,000 hogs each day (33 a minute!), injuries are to be expected. It’s not so much that injuries occur, say workers, but the way the company reacts to them.

Managers in Tar Heel make it clear that plant employees are easily replaceable. Workers have been fired while recovering from their injuries—sometimes even before they’ve returned to work. Smithfield frequently challenges workers’ compensation claims, so that injured workers must fight for years to recover thousands of dollars in medical bills from injuries sustained on the job.

The upshot is that workers are afraid to report injuries for fear of retaliation, which can lead, over time, to severe, even crippling, damage. The enormous turnover rates in Tar Heel mean an under-trained, inexperienced workforce, inordinately prone to work-related accidents.

Workers believe that union representation would mitigate many of these workplace problems. But the company has laid out an aggressive, expensive, and particularly brutal campaign to stop a plant union at all costs.

Next: The 15-year struggle to unionize Smithfield’s Tar Heel Plant.

Eric Wingerter: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 7:17 AM, Feb 21, 2008 in Civil Justice | Labor
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