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Mississippi slaughterhouse is directly responsible for death of migrant teen who was sucked into machinery, OSHA says

Federal officials cited Mar-Jac Poultry for 14 violations and have proposed more than $200,000 in fines.
child labor
Mar-Jac Poultry MS LLC in Hattiesburg, Miss.Laura Strickler / NBC News

A Mississippi slaughterhouse that supplies chicken to Chick-fil-A is directly to blame for the death of a 16-year-old worker who was sucked into equipment in July and killed within minutes, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said Tuesday.

OSHA, an agency within the U.S. Labor Department, said that it had cited Georgia-based Mar-Jac Poultry for 14 serious violations and proposed more than $200,000 in fines.

“Mar-Jac Poultry is aware of how dangerous the machinery they use can be when safety standards are not in place to prevent serious injury and death. The company’s inaction has directly led to this terrible tragedy, which has left so many to mourn this child’s preventable death,” OSHA Regional Administrator Kurt Petermeyer said. 

Duvan Pérez, the 16-year-old worker, was cleaning the deboning area of the Hattiesburg plant when his hand got caught and his body was pulled into the machinery. OSHA officials say that while a Mar-Jac manager was supervising in and around the area prior to and during the accident, "procedures were not utilized to disconnect power to the machine."

Pérez was the second person to accidentally die at the plant after getting sucked into a machine in a two-year period. 

Mar-Jac Poultry declined to comment on the OSHA findings, but in an October statement the company said that all safety procedures had been followed.

In the earlier statement, Mar-Jac attorney Larry Stine told NBC News: “Mar-Jac thoroughly investigated the accident and has not found any errors committed by its safety or human resources employees. It has learned many lessons from the accident and has taken aggressive steps to prevent the occurrence of another accident or hiring underage workers.”

child labor
Duvan Pérez, 16, from Guatemala, died while cleaning equipment at the Mar-Jac Poultry plant in Hattiesburg, Miss.Duvan Pérez via Facebook

A representative for Chick-fil-A, which buys chicken from Mar-Jac, could not immediately be reached, but a company spokesperson told NBC News in October, “We are reviewing our own procedures for investigation and response as we pursue the steps necessary to effectively hold all our suppliers to our high safety standards.”

Debbie Berkowitz, a workplace safety expert who was an OSHA official during the Obama administration, said, “These are incredibly serious alleged safety violations that cost a child’s life — a child who was not supposed to even be exposed to this dangerous workplace. … The poor safety track record of this plant and the company is alarming — workers should not get killed in a poultry plant.”

Following Pérez’s death, two Labor Department investigations were launched. One, conducted by OSHA, focused on how the teenager died. The second, by the department’s Wage and Hour Division, examined how a 16-year-old was hired to do the work. The second investigation remains ongoing, according to the agency.

The federal government prohibits the hiring of anyone under 18 in slaughterhouses because of the dangers of the job.

NBC News previously reported that the 16-year-old was illegally hired using the false identity of a 32-year-old man.

Stine told NBC News that Pérez was hired by a third-party staffing agency.

The number of children working illegally has skyrocketed across all industries, according to the Labor Department, almost doubling since 2019. More than 800 child labor investigations in 47 states are ongoing across industries, according to the agency.

In September, the Labor Department asked the public for help in its child labor investigation, appealing to current and former Mar-Jac employees to speak to investigators after finding current employees were reluctant to talk and fearful of the consequences.

Asked if the company was surprised to learn that Pérez was 16 instead of 32, Stine said, “Yes, they were surprised, that I can tell you. They were surprised and somewhat horrified.”

He was also asked if the potential fines from the Labor Department affect how a company does business. He said, “I think the publicity of having something like that is far worse than the penalty. Nobody wants to be seen to have been hiring a child.”