Explosion, chemical hazards persist at Pilgrim's Pride poultry plants

Pilgrim's Pride can't seem to get its act together safely handling highly toxic and explosive gases.   The firm---the second largest poultry producer in the world with annual net sales of $8.1 Billion---received citations again from federal OSHA concerning its failed safety management of anhydrous ammonia.

OSHA announced this month $170,000 in proposed penalties for 9 serious, 1 willful and 1 repeat violation at the company's De Queen, Arkansas plant.  All of the alleged violations involve requirements under OSHA's process safety management standard for control of highly hazardous chemicals.  Pilgrim's Pride has received similar citations from OSHA for its facilities in Lufkin, TX; Live Oak, FL; and Russellville, AL (here, here, here.)

This most recent set of citations reads like a disaster involving anhydrous ammonia was just waiting to happen.  The employer failed to ensure that detailed written procedures were established and implemented for

  • conducting thickness measurements of piping and vessels;
  • inspecting insulated piping and vessels;
  • inspecting of relief valves and relief vent systems; and
  • managing process changes related to removing equipment from the ammonia refrigeration service;

Pilgrim's Pride management also failed to:

  • inspect and conduct tests on process equipment to ensure its on-going mechanical integrity;
  • ensure that the emergency shutdown system was installed in the North and South engine rooms in accordance with generally accepted good engineering practices;
  • ensure that the ammonia detector used to shut down the boilers in the event of a release was repaired and returned to service in a timely manner; and
  • ensure that the emergency mechanical ventilation system in the South engine room is either activated by an ammonia detector or run continuously.

These are some of the same problems found by OSHA inspectors on previous inspections at other Pilgrim's Pride facilities.  In December 2012, when the agency issued citations to the firm about the Lufkin, TX plant, OSHA's area director said

"Exposure to highly hazardous chemicals can be fatal. OSHA will not tolerate a company's failure to provide a safe and healthful working environment."

One way OSHA demonstrates that lack of tolerance for safety failures, which can have catastrophic effects, is proposing a steep penalty.  The trouble is, OSHA's maximum penalty amounts haven't been updated by Congress for 20 years.  The maximum penalty for a serious violation is just $7,000, even for a corporation the size of Pilgrim's Pride.  I hardly think a proposed penalty of $170,000 even gets a post-it- note on the CEO's message board.  Pilgrim's Pride reported a gross profit for the first quarter of 2013 of $118.4 million.

OSHA has also been showing a lack of tolerance for recalcitrant companies with its Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP).  Launched in June 2010, it establishes criteria for placing an employer on the agency's SVEP list.  The criteria involves certain types, numbers of, and severity of violations.  Those employers on the list are subject to a follow-up inspection at the site where violations were cited, as well as at other workplaces controlled by the same company.

Do these recent willful and repeat violations by Pilgrim's Pride move the multi-national onto OSHA's SVEP list?   Nope.

OSHA's criteria sets a very high bar for making it onto the bad actor list.  Only about 300 employers nationwide are currently on it.  The criteria for violations related to process safety management (PSM) are an even higher hurdle.   In a single inspection, an employer must receive at least three PSM violations that are classified as high-gravity "repeat," "willful," or "failure-to-abate".  Pilgrim's Pride's plant in De Queen, AR only received two----one willful, one repeat---violations during this most recent inspection.  No matter that the billion-dollar company has received a number of repeat violations at some of its other facilities.

OSHA needs to lower the bar on what it considers a recalcitrant employer.  Pilgrim's Pride would likely pay more attention to safety if it knew the next time it received a single repeat violation at any plant it will get the label: severe violator.




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