The Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Tuesday that it planned to fine meat processor Mar-Jac Poultry nearly $213,000 following a teenager’s death at the company’s Hattiesburg, Mississippi, plant last year.
The 16-year-old boy was pulled into the rotating shaft of a machine while working on a cleaning crew in the plant’s deboning area July 14.
Although OSHA did not name him in the citation, at the time of his death the boy was widely reported to be Duvan Robert Tomas Perez of Hattiesburg. Perez would have entered the ninth grade last fall, according to his obituary.
Investigators found that Mar-Jac failed to follow what are known as “lockout/tagout” procedures to make sure that dangerous machinery is completely disabled. Mar-Jac had not used a lockout/tagout device “to prevent the machine from unintentionally starting during the cleaning,” OSHA said.
A separate investigation is underway by the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division to determine if Mar-Jac or a subcontractor violated child labor regulations.
“The U.S. is dealing with a surge in child labor cases, particularly among migrant children who fled Latin American countries.”
OSHA fines are notoriously miniscule by law. The bulk of the $212,646 in fines against Mar-Jac came from 14 “serious” safety citations, which were capped at $15,625 apiece last year. OSHA did not identify any “willful” violations, which are more expensive (up to $156,259 each in 2023) but come with a higher burden of proof.
The fine amount could ultimately be lowered in a settlement between Mar-Jac and OSHA, and such cases often stay open for years due to litigation and appeals. The company has 15 days to dispute the penalty.
Mar-Jac, based in Gainesville, Georgia, did not immediately respond to a phone call seeking comment Tuesday.
In a statement several days after Perez’s death, the company pointed a finger at a staffing company — Onin Staffing LLC, according to OSHA — which provided workers to clean its plant, saying the boy “should not have been hired.”
“We are devastated at the loss of life, and deeply regret that an underage individual was hired without our knowledge,” the company said at the time.
Perez and his family had reportedly emigrated from Guatemala roughly six years before his death.
“One of his greatest accomplishments was buying his own car,” his obituary noted.
Kurt Petermeyer, a regional administrator for OSHA based in Atlanta, Georgia, said in a statement that Mar-Jac “is aware of how dangerous” its machinery is and failed to take proper precautions.
“The company’s inaction has directly led to this terrible tragedy, which has left so many to mourn this child’s preventable death,” he said.
“The company’s inaction has directly led to this terrible tragedy, which has left so many to mourn this child’s preventable death.”
– Kurt Petermeyer, OSHA regional administrator
Petermeyer noted that Mar-Jac had been cited for another worker’s death in 2021 when the worker’s shirtsleeve was pulled into a machine.
“Only about two years later nothing has changed and the company continues to treat employee safety as an afterthought, putting its workers at risk,” Petermeyer said. “No worker should be placed in a preventable, dangerous situation, let alone a child.”
The U.S. is dealing with a surge in child labor cases, particularly among migrant children who fled Latin American countries and are now working inside meat processing plants and on top of roofs, among other dangerous workplaces. Many companies have tried to blame their subcontractors, saying that they didn’t directly hire the underage workers themselves.
Mar-Jac previously said that it had relied on staffing companies to provide workers at its facilities due to “an unprecedentedly tight labor market.”