Mountaire fined $73,000, ordered to fix violations

First Posted: 12/17/2009

LUMBER BRIDGE Friday is the deadline the state has given Mountaire Farms to correct 20 violations found during inspections following the death of an employee at the meat processing plant in June.
The state Labor Department said Tuesday an inspector found 22 violations, 20 of which were considered serious, resulting in $73,325 in fines, since June 20 when a Fayetteville man, 47-year-old Clifton Swain, was killed by an ammonia leak. Four others were injured that day, including two who were hospitalized.
While the inspector assigned a date by which a violation must be abated to each citation, the company has a 10-day grace period following the deadline.
The Labor Department launched an investigation into the incident on June 23, saying it would take three to four months. Dolores Quesenberry, communications director for the Labor Department, said in June the investigation would include interviewing employees who were at the plant at the time of the accident; looking into company safety and health programs; and examining company maintenance and operating procedures.
Almost six months later, the inspectors findings show poor lighting in some areas, no rails on some elevated platforms, no rinse stations near where chemicals are being used, and no policy for routine maintenance checks on equipment.
Violations related to the June incident include poor respirator maintenance, no distinctive emergency alarm, and poor emergency training for employees, who did not wear respirator masks when they responded to the leak, the inspectors citations show.
Ammonia is highly flammable and toxic. It is commonly used as a commercial refrigerant because of its low cost and high efficiency. Exposure to concentrated amounts of ammonia gas or liquid can cause superficial and respiratory burns, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The poultry processing plant, with about 2,500 employees, has until Feb. 3 to train employees in emergency protocol and fit-test the respirators, according to the citation.
Before the most recent citations, Mountaire Farms had at least 36 violations dating back to 2001 ranging from machinery problems to control of hazardous energy, Occupational Safety and Health Administration records show.
Now Mountaire Farms has 15 working days to decide whether it will request an informal conference with the Labor Department, file a challenge, or pay the $73,325 in fines. Quesenberry said that timeline includes holidays, which makes a difference this time of year.
Quesenberry said Wednesday afternoon that the company had made no indication which route it will take, though most companies request an informal conference. The company is currently negotiating citations from an October 2008 case, in which 22 violations 15 deemed serious resulted in $19,600 in fines, according to OSHA records.
Its an opportunity to sit down with Labor Department staff and negotiate, Quesenberry said. There are cases where they can present evidence that could change citations.
Quesenberry said in June that those negotiations could take years.
The fines ultimately paid go to the Civil Penalty and Forfeiture Fund, which distributes the money to public school systems in the state.
Calls to the Lumber Bridge plant were referred to its corporate headquarters, which did not return The Robesonians phone call.
Through November there have been 35 workplace fatalities in the state during 2009, compared with 57 in 2008 and 45 in 2007, Quesenberry said.
Work performed at Mountaire Farms is considered manufacturing, which is among the top three most dangerous professions.
Manufacturing, construction and agriculture tend to be the more hazardous industries, Quesenberry said. Its just the nature of the work theyre doing.
By November last year, there had been 53 workplace fatalities.
We actually have fewer fatalities, Quesenberry said. Wed like to believe its because of the work we do to educate and train employers and employees, but employers out there have a lot to do with it. They are recognizing the importance of strong safety programs.

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