Toxic substance lawyers at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm report that meat processing giant Tyson recently reached a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department for exposing Midwestern workers to dangerous levels of ammonia.
The federal government’s complaint was filed, along with details of the settlement, on Thursday, May 2, 2013. According to the complaint, Tyson knowingly violated several regulations related to ammonia use and exposure in its factories. Ammonia is a chemical gas typically used in refrigeration. When exposed in high levels to humans, it can cause burning, choking, and even death.
More than one dozen Tyson employees were injured by accidental ammonia release between 2006 and 2010 in the Midwest, which resulted in at least one death. Another worker was chemically burned on over 25% of his body, spending a total of 45 days in the hospital. During these incidents, Tyson failed to comply with risk-management obligations, failed to properly train employees, and failed to maintain ammonia-related safety equipment.
As part of the settlement deal, Tyson will have to not only pay $3.95 million, but also provide $300,000 for new emergency response equipment in communities it is present in and create a new risk-management program. The exposure was brought to the government’s attention after the EPA examined records of Tyson facilities in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.
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Tyson acknowledged that, although it complied with EPA investigations, there were times in its facilities that risk-management systems ran behind schedule and failed to meet federal guidelines. The EPA considers ammonia an extremely hazardous substance. Breathing in even small amounts of the chemical can cause burning of the eyes, nose and throat. With higher doses, coughing and choking may occur, leading to swollen throats, burned and bleeding lungs, and ultimately death.
Tyson employs more than 100,000 people in the U.S. and overseas, reporting profits of over $580 million in 2012. It has faced dozens of lawsuits in recent years from employees that claim the company cheated them out of pay in direct violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
One woman from Washington, Alabama recently started a petition on Change.org, requesting that Tyson stop pouring dangerous chemicals (such as ammonia) on its chicken. The woman works as a USDA poultry inspector, and became seriously ill as a result of heavy chemical use in the Alabama Tyson plant where she was stationed.
She is currently suffering from a multitude of health problems, such as asthma attacks, sinus problems and organ damage. She affirms that the introduction of one chemical in particular, peracetic acid, is particularly hazardous. During her work at the Tyson plant she coughed so hard she broke two ribs and constantly felt like she was suffocating.
Troublingly, the USDA has not conducted any formal evaluations of how these chemicals affects workers’ conditions and health, and there have not been any studies of how these chemicals (which are directly applied to chickens during processing) affect consumer health.
Doctors near the Tyson plant in Alabama affirm that there are an increasing number of patients coming from the facility with symptoms similar to those the USDA inspector was experiencing. These include respiratory infections, development of serious allergies, and eye irritation.
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Workplace exposure attorneys at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm point to a recent article in the Washington Post detailing the proliferation of chemical injuries in chicken plant workers. The piece illuminates the story of a man who died after five years working as a federal poultry inspector. The man’s lungs bled out, triggering a federal investigation. If you or a loved one was seriously injured by workplace chemical exposure, you have important legal rights, and may be entitled to significant compensation.