A 911 call from the Tyson chicken processing plant in Baker Hill, Alabama, came late in the afternoon on March 3, 2020. When the paramedic arrived and saw Carlos Lynn’s body, still by the machine that Lynn had been cleaning, he knew there was nothing to do but call the coroner.
Lynn, 39, had been sanitizing the chicken chiller, an approximately 50-foot-long machine that fills its own room at the chicken plant. Its key feature is a device made of blades called an auger that rotates poultry into a 10-foot-deep tank of cold water when the production line is running. No cameras were in the chiller room. The Barbour County coroner determined that about 30 minutes had passed before a co-worker walked into the room and discovered that Lynn had been decapitated.
Lynn’s death briefly made international news before being overshadowed by the coronavirus outbreak. Five months later, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspector determined the accident could have been prevented if there had been a physical barrier on the chiller, guarding the corner where the auger blades meet the top of an overflow drain, according to Department of Labor documents obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request.
It’s unclear why Tyson’s machine didn’t have such a guard, which is required by federal law, because getting caught in the pinch points of running machinery is a known risk of working in a meatpacking plant.
Tyson installed additional guarding "immediately after the accident,” company spokesperson Kelly Hellbusch said.
But Tyson never paid any fines to the agency, known as OSHA, or any civil damages for the decapitation. In state court, the $40 billion meat processor argued that it was not responsible for the safety of the workers who clean its machines.
Tyson “did not owe a duty to Carlos Lynn, an employee of an independent contractor, with respect to working conditions,” the meatpacker argued in his family’s wrongful death suit.
Instead, providing a safe workplace fell on the responsibility of Lynn’s former employer, Packers Sanitation Services Inc., or PSSI, an industrial sanitation company that has some of the worst rates of workplace injuries in the country, according to a 2017 analysis by the worker protection advocacy group the National Employment Law Project.
In interviews, some PSSI workers felt conflicted about PSSI’s safety record because they were grateful that the company hires people with felony convictions and pays above minimum wage.
PSSI tells its workers in promotional material and in training that they are part of a family, even as it asks them to sign documents assuming the risk of death on the job: “I understand that performance of work or services on the customer’s property can result in personal harm, loss, damage, injury, or death. I accept these risks,” reads a liability waiver included in the PSSI employee contracts.
In interviews, some PSSI workers felt conflicted about PSSI’s safety record because they were grateful that the company hires people with felony convictions and pays above minimum wage.
“We've done all kinds of stuff for people that have died. We've raised money for their families and give away stuff,” said one supervisor who would only speak on condition of anonymity out of concern that he could violate a confidentiality clause in his employment contract. “This is a family company. It’s not just, ‘Oh well, thank you. Have a nice day. I'm sorry that your husband, wife or child died working for our company.’”
In a statement to NBC News, PSSI spokesperson Gina Swenson wrote that “all of our workers are part of the PSSI family, and we provide them the resources and training not only to succeed at their jobs but grow with the company.”
“The death of Carlos Lynn is profoundly sad and tragic, and we grieve for his family and loved ones,” the statement said.
‘You’ve got to stop’
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, at least 270 U.S. meatpacking workers have died of the disease and thousands more were infected, according to lawmakers and the Food & Environment Reporting Network. A U.S. House subcommittee is currently investigating the three biggest meatpackers in the country — Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and JBS USA — and it is looking into OSHA because the worker safety agency waited months before inspecting factories where workers had complained about outbreaks.
Separately, a group of Democratic lawmakers has introduced a bill that would ban meatpacking plants from increasing their production line speeds during the pandemic. The Department of Agriculture has approved line speed waivers at 15 poultry plants despite concerns that faster speeds could make it even harder to follow Covid-19 protocols. (Tyson owns seven plants with line speed waivers that were later the source of coronavirus outbreaks, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network.)
Human rights and labor experts describe those measures as only a start in addressing the dangers that meatpacking workers face. Even before the pandemic, one meat or poultry worker in the U.S. was sent to a hospital with an injury or lost a body part, on average, every other day, according to a Human Rights Watch investigation published in 2019, with rates of injury and illness “significantly higher” than other manufacturing jobs, they found.
Less is known about the dangers of independent contractors who work in the factories, according to researchers from the Government Accountability Office and the Human Rights Watch report. But OSHA data on severe accidents suggests sanitation workers face higher risk of injuries like amputation or death.
According to the National Employment Law Project, which studied the issue in 2017, PSSI had the 14th highest number of severe worker injuries in the country out of 14,000 workplaces despite employing only 17,000 workers. Every other dangerous workplace to make the list employed between 44,000 and 1.6 million workers domestically. The group noted that meatpackers were overrepresented in its ranking, with Tyson Foods coming in fourth and JBS and Pilgrim’s Pride sixth.
In a statement to NBC News, PSSI described that report as "flawed" and said it has reduced its OSHA recordable injury rate by more than 30 percent since 2018.
PSSI also said it is "not involved in our customers’ production decisions” and that it has authority to “notify the customer of any unsafe conditions, and we do not hesitate to act in these situations."
But some PSSI workers see a connection between high production speeds at food processing plants and equipment that doesn’t have required safety guards, which is a commonplace violation according to OSHA records and interviews.
“Everything costs money and stuff takes time and that's the problem,” said Taylor Travis, who worked for PSSI for nine years before leaving last year. In that time, he said, one friend lost their arm up to the elbow after falling asleep while cleaning a machine without a guard, and another lost the tip of a finger in a machine. Travis suffered a chemical burn on his foot because the protective boots given to him by PSSI had a hole in them, according to pictures he provided NBC News. He says he was sent home to recover for four days without being provided paperwork and didn’t file a complaint with OSHA.
PSSI declined to comment on this and other accounts from individual workers.
“They’ve got to cut back on production,” he said. “You want to keep pumping these chicken legs out. You want to keep up pumping these hamburger patties and steaks out. You’ve got to stop.”
‘PSSI til I die’ values
When meatpacking workers go home for the day, it’s up to the third-shift cleaning crew to get rid of any trace of the fat deposits, blood, feathers, microscopic bacteria and other animal remnants left behind so the plant can pass a USDA inspection before a new round of animals is slaughtered and processed the next day.
PSSI, founded in 1973 with the pitch that it provided sanitation with nonunionized workers, now sanitizes more than 450 plants all over the country. Its customers include all types of food processors and the world’s biggest meatpackers.
According to a contract with one meatpacker in North Carolina, obtained via FOIA, PSSI is paid between $26,000 to $50,000 per week to clean the plant, depending on whether it cleans four or seven days a week.
Privately held, PSSI was purchased by the private equity firm Leonard Green & Partners LP for around $1 billion in 2014, according to Reuters.
PSSI said it has taken multiple steps to improve its accident rate since 2018, including hiring former OSHA officials and recording plants with a new monitoring system that can detect and send alerts about “operational irregularities.”
People who take sanitation jobs with PSSI include people from all backgrounds, ages, races and nationalities, according to six current or former workers interviewed by NBC News, most of whom requested anonymity because they were concerned that granting interviews violated confidentiality clauses in their contracts. The one commonality among workers, according to an employee recruiter at PSSI, is that they are “people that really need a job.”
“I did things that put me in prison, and when I got out of prison, PSSI was there to give me a chance to make amends."
One PSSI supervisor still remembers the $680 check a friend showed him from one week of work. He was amazed at the amount of money, considering that, like him, the friend had a felony on his record.
“I did things that put me in prison, and when I got out of prison, PSSI was there to give me a chance to make amends,” he said.
On an employee-only Facebook page, workers say they are proud to be serving their country and protecting the nation’s food supply. During the pandemic, some were provided T-shirts that read, “I’m an Essential Employee.” In one post, a worker commented, “PSSI til I die.”
New hires start anywhere between $12 to $15 an hour, depending on where the plant is located, according to internal job postings and interviews. During a four-week training, recruits are taught how to lock out and tag out machines — in other words, how to power the machines completely off — before getting near them. They are also taught how to make a caustic acid mixture used to kill bacteria and how to spray down all machines and surfaces with high-pressure hydraulic hoses.
If workers can go 30 days without recording an accident at the plant they clean, they are invited to vote on which fast-food restaurant they want for a catered dinner. Sixty days comes with a second catered dinner.
“When we get to 120 and above, that’s where we start giving out TVs. That’s part of our plan to help people stay safe,” the employee recruiter said.
Accidents that are considered minor don’t have to be recorded. One worker remembered she had complained about a hydraulic hose that appeared to be loose but said her supervisor tightened the part himself rather than having it replaced. Not long after, she said, it exploded in the middle of a work shift, when it was filled with the acid mixture.
“I managed to burn my face, but it could have been a heck of a lot worse,” said the worker, who decided not to record the injury because she had been wearing personal protective equipment and recovered after three days.
‘Sign of a significant management problem’
Even some workers who feel indebted to PSSI for employing them acknowledge they have been put in situations that made them scared or uncomfortable.
“Everybody has had their moments where they either failed to [lock out machines] or are trying to do it quick because USDA's coming,” a supervisor told NBC News. “I tell them during the trainings, ‘I know that you're not going to lock out every single time. I'm not stupid. But you need to make sure that if you're doing something, you're doing it in a safe manner.’”
PSSI responded by saying that advice “is flatly untrue. We do not tolerate violations when the safety of our employees is involved.”
According to an August Department of Labor report obtained through FOIA, OSHA has inspected PSSI 56 times in the last five years and issued 38 citations against the company. Twenty of the citations had to do with equipment not being locked out while workers were cleaning it, and five citations had to do with machines that lacked guards.
Though meatpackers argue in court that they are not responsible for providing a safe workplace to PSSI workers, some workers interviewed were unaware of that. In fact, the workers thought it was the meatpackers’ responsibility to fix equipment that is broken or missing safety guards, even if that didn’t always play out in practice.
Carlos Lynn’s decapitation in March 2020 was one of four fatalities PSSI reported to OSHA in the span of a year.
“I had to argue all the time with the maintenance man to fix things for me,” said Carolyn Benito, who spent 2 1/2 years at a plant in West Virginia. She said she was demoted after she refused to return to work before finishing a 14-day quarantine for Covid-19. She had also become concerned about workers who didn’t seem to be properly trained.
“I was getting employees in my room that didn't know not to mix the chemicals. They didn’t know not to mix acid and chlorine,” she said.
Another employee recalled a work shift at a Pilgrim's Pride plant in Arkansas in January 2019, in which the fumes from the cleaning chemicals were so strong that she asked for permission to leave the building. PSSI management refused until “we couldn't bear the chemicals anymore,” she said. At home, she vomited blood, according to a photograph and journal entries she provided.
In a statement to NBC News, Gina Swenson, the PSSI spokesperson, said, “While we cannot comment on individual employee matters, we encourage every worker to notify their managers about any perceived safety hazard so that we can respond promptly and appropriately.”
Carlos Lynn’s decapitation in March 2020 was one of four fatalities PSSI reported to OSHA in the span of a year, a figure that “is extremely high and clearly the sign of a significant management problem,” said David Michaels, former head of OSHA in the Obama administration who is now a George Washington University professor.
At one North Carolina poultry plant operated by a chicken company called the House of Raeford, PSSI workers routinely scaled the chicken chiller or crawled inside the 10-foot tank while the machine was operating, according to inspectors with North Carolina’s Department of Labor.
On Oct. 25, 2019, Antonio Fonseca-Gutierrez was seen on surveillance video climbing into the chiller’s tank to scrub it one last time, inspectors from the North Carolina Department of Labor found. A co-worker they interviewed remembers hearing him yell for help. Fonseca-Gutierrez, 45, died after getting caught between the moving auger blade and the side of the tank. North Carolina regulators cited PSSI for exposing workers to a fall hazard and the moving auger blades. PSSI hired a law firm to fight the citations and ultimately came to a $215,000 settlement agreement with the agency.
After the accident, PSSI installed its own cameras in the chiller room to monitor employees, according to House of Raeford spokesman Dave Witter.
PSSI reported two more fatalities in 2020, but OSHA closed investigations without issuing citations. A Department of Labor spokesman said one of the investigations was closed “after it was determined that the death was not occupationally related.”
‘People make mistakes’
Carlos Lynn grew up near Baker Hill in Eufaula, a small town where Tyson Foods is the largest employer. When he was younger, local police knew him as “Rollo,” the alleged leader of a cocaine trafficking ring. By age 31, he faced a life sentence in prison after pleading guilty to the drug trafficking charges, according to local newspaper reports covering the case at the time. He was released on probation five years later and stayed out of prison after that.
In August 2019, he took a job cleaning the chicken plant while also running his own landscaping business on the side. An employee recruiter at PSSI remembered Lynn as a quiet man and hard worker. He earned about $650 a week from the PSSI job and used the money to support his wife and his six children, the family said in court filings. On the day he died in March last year, he had been promoted from team leader to a supervisor, according to a Department of Labor report obtained via a FOIA request.
“He was a big dreamer, hard worker and great father who loved his family dearly. We’d been together 21 years,” his wife, Beverly Gamble, said in a written statement. She declined to give an interview because she is “still grieving over his horrible death.”
After completing its investigation into the accident in August, OSHA cited PSSI for the missing guard and for lockout violations, for a total of $57,834 in proposed penalties. The missing guard was a “plain view hazard” that PSSI management had been aware of for months, the report said.
“Based on PSSI’s demeanor it is assumed that they will raise an employee/supervisor misconduct defense as to the conduct of Carlos Lynn,” the OSHA inspector wrote.
In its statement to NBC News, PSSI appeared to suggest that Lynn was to blame for the accident.
“Mr. Lynn started cleaning the energized equipment without a supervisor present,” PSSI said. The Department of Labor found that Lynn himself was a supervisor.
PSSI contested the citations and eventually agreed to pay OSHA a settlement of $26,988 for the lockout violations. PSSI told NBC News that the guard citations were withdrawn by OSHA “upon further examination of the evidence.” But OSHA’s final narrative of the incident states that “there were no guards preventing the employee from accessing the moving portion of the augur.”
Tyson Foods was not cited by OSHA because the agency determined that Tyson “did not direct PSSI in their cleaning methods.”
“We’re saddened by the tragic loss of Mr. Lynn and fully cooperated with OSHA’s investigation into the accident,” Tyson said in a statement.
PSSI offered to pay Lynn’s family a total of $216,000 in workers’ compensation. The family is also suing Tyson for damages. The case is still in discovery, but the meatpacker has filed a motion to dismiss the case on the basis that Lynn was an independent contractor and that he had signed PSSI’s liability waiver.
“Mr. Lynn assumed the risk of all personal harm, loss, damage, injury, or death,” when he took the job with PSSI, Tyson’s subsidiaries said in court filings. (Tyson declined to comment on pending litigation.)
David Michaels, the former OSHA head, and Deborah Berkowitz, a former OSHA official and the worker health and safety program director at the National Employment Law Project, said they disagree with the idea that Tyson shouldn’t be held responsible by OSHA for an injury suffered by an independent contractor on faulty equipment. Even though PSSI’s liability waivers may protect meatpackers from claims in civil court, that should have no bearing on OSHA requirements, which mandate that“host” employers and their subcontractors provide a safe workplace.
The experts also said it’s typical for companies to blame their own injured employees for not powering off the equipment.
“The law is very clear: You cannot rely on a worker voluntarily turning off the machine to protect themselves,” Michaels said. “People make mistakes. Workers are often under pressure to work quickly, so you have to build in the protection of the machine guard.”