A large chicken supplier for supermarkets and fast food chains, including Kentucky Fried Chicken, is facing more than $1.4 million in fines after gruesome industrial accidents led to one teenage worker's leg being amputated below the knee and a 24-year-old losing two fingertips.
Both workers were fired after being maimed in the accidents at an Ohio processing facility run by Case Farms Processing Inc., according to the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
"I would consider this company one of the worst of the worst," OSHA Spokesperson Scott Allen told BuzzFeed News. "Especially for a 17-year-old, who shouldn't have been working there in the first place, to have been injured."
The agency levied fines against Case Farms and cleaning subcontractor Cal-Clean, which employed the teenager who lost his lower leg. Both companies were cited for exposing workers to hazards including amputations, falls, and risk of electrocution.
Allen said OSHA has regulations on the books prohibiting workers under 18 from working with or around machinery that could put them at risk of amputations. A representative from Cal-Clean reached by phone declined to comment.
Case Farms said in a statement, "While we do not deem it appropriate to comment on ongoing administrative matters, we do not agree with the negative characterizations that have been made about our company and our employees," noting its Ohio facilities received two awards for safety programs in the past six months.
"Our employees are our most important resource and we continue to focus on providing a safe and healthy work environment. The citations are being reviewed, and we will work with OSHA, as we have in the past, to address the concerns outlined in the citations," the statement said.
Poultry processing has long been known as a dangerous job. OSHA says workers in the industry suffer work-related injuries and illness at more than twice the national average.
Headquartered in North Carolina, Case Farms employs more than 3,200 workers who process nearly 3 million chickens per week at North Carolina and Ohio facilities. The company produces more than 900 million pounds of fresh, partly cooked, and frozen poultry products, including chicken tenders for KFC.
KFC did not respond to a request for comment.
According to the agency, the fingertip amputations occurred when a 24-year-old employee was cleaning a fat sucker machine on March 25. Parts of the machine's plunger amputated the middle and ring fingertips of the worker's right hand, and the company was faulted for allowing the machine to operate as it was cleaned. Having worked at Case Farms for nearly a year and a half, the worker was first suspended from his job for 10 days and subsequently fired.
Just weeks later, OSHA said, a 17-year-old employee of Cal-Clean, also known as Callaghan and Callaghan, had half of his left leg amputated as he cleaned a liver-giblet chiller machine. Unable to return to work due to his injuries, the teen was also fired after the incident.
OSHA maintains that Case Farms is responsible for exposing the teen worker to operating machinery because it never installed safety mechanisms. The agency also cited Cal-Clean for failing to report the amputation within 24 hours, as required by law.
"A teenager's life has been forever altered because of a devastating leg injury just weeks after starting this job," said Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health in a statement. "OSHA will continue to inspect, monitor and penalize this company until it makes necessary improvements."
In August, OSHA placed Case Farms in the agency's Severe Violator Enforcement Program, after it assessed more than $850,000 in penalties for labor violations at the company's Winesburg, Ohio location. The company said at the time that it was committed to a safe and healthy work environment and "did not agree with the negative characterizations that have been made about our company and our employees."
Case Farms has contested previous OSHA citations against them and has 15 days, from Monday, to contest the latest batch. Allen said OSHA has not yet heard from the company on whether it will contest.
Two other inspections are currently open at Case Farms facilities: one into problems with ammonia refrigeration at the location, which could cause respiratory illnesses, and one into allegations that poultry workers are experiencing symptoms of a food-borne illness.
Howard Eberts, OSHA's area director in Cleveland, said in a statement that Case Farms has endangered workers for a quarter century, despite repeated inspections and pledges from the company to fix its safety and health programs.
"There are food processing companies doing the right things and protecting their workers, not taking shortcuts to increase productivity," Allen told BuzzFeed News. "When you're getting into hundreds of thousands of dollars, millions of dollars of fines — companies like that show no apparent care for the health and welfare of their workers."