As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Serious Side Of Chocolate

(This post is part of Brave New Foundation's 16 Deaths Per Day campaign, where I am a blogger fellow.)

Back in July, a temp worker died from falling into a vat of chocolate. He had been on the job two weeks.

A temp worker at a Camden chocolate processing plant died this morning after he fell into an eight-foot vat that was mixing and melting chocolate to be used in Hershey's candy.

Vincent Smith II, 29, of Camden, was standing atop a platform and tossing blocks of solid, raw chocolate into the tank, Jason Laughlin, spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, said.

The tank was heated at 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and paddles inside stirred the chocolate as it was thrown in.

When Smith fell around 10:30 a.m., one of his three coworkers on the platform immediately rushed to turn the machine off and the two others tried to pull him out.

But Smith had been struck by one of the paddles, suffering fatal injuries. He was pronounced dead at the scene, and Camden firefighters pulled his chocolate-covered body out of the tank.

A few local newscasts in the Philadelphia area had some fun with this story, barely suppressing giggles and making predictable puns as they gave it a brief mention.

But they never followed up on the story. In fact, the owners of the plant, Lyons & Sons, never had a license to make chocolate (yes that's a Fox news link):

Officials say a cocoa processing center in New Jersey was operating illegally when a worker fell into a vat of melting chocolate and died.

Camden cited Lyons & Sons Inc. for not having a business license after Vincent Smith II died Wednesday.

Authorities say the 29-year-old was hit by a mixing paddle.

Company spokesman Kevin Feeley says that it's a misunderstanding and that Camden officials knew the firm was operating in the former Campbell Soup plant.

I'm sure the company spokesman would call it a misunderstanding.

The lack of a license - after "six or seven" years of operation, according to the initial story - may explain why Lyons & Sons didn't have any prior OSHA violations. Hard to investigate businesses when they aren't carrying licenses and the city inspectors don't know of their plant's existence, making them unable to refer problems to OSHA. In fact, the plant was never zoned for melting chocolate, but cocoa-bean storage. And Lyons & Sons actually was contracted through a company called Cocoa Services (presumably so one could blame the oversights on the other). And John Lyons was listed as the President of both businesses.

Ultimately, one business is really culpable here. Hershey doesn't make their own chocolate anymore. They sub-contract it out to companies like Lyons & Sons to cut costs. Included in those cost savings are worker benefits - and worker safety.

Nancy Cleeland wrote about Smith's story in October for The American Prospect.

Safety is of particular concern in food-processing plants, which often feature slick floors, powerful machinery, and raised platforms. Any one of those features can be deadly. Falls are the second leading cause of death on the job in the U.S., after highway accidents, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even as the overall occupational death rate has dropped, the toll from falls has been steadily rising for 15 years -- with 847 reported fatalities in 2007.

"In many of these plants you have bits of food flying everywhere, and it gets on the floor," says Jackie Nowell, occupational safety and health director of the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), which represents workers in beef- and poultry-processing plants, among others. "That makes it very dangerous. Employers struggle with this issue all the time. And it's a very big concern for workers."

Worries about safety have driven many organizing campaigns and contract negotiations in food processing. Unions representing workers in the industry invest in health and safety research and advocacy and include safety language in contracts. "There's a great history of it," Nowell says. "I've got old contracts from the '40s that talk about safety committees. It was important that there be a system that workers could go through. They learned to look for hazards and felt comfortable reporting them."

But without job security or the support of a union, temp workers are seldom forthcoming with their concerns, she adds. And when accidents do happen, the victim's interests sometimes languish as blame is passed around. "There has to be a better definition of who's the employer," Nowell says. "There has to be a closing of the loop."

Understand the circumstances surrounding Smith's death. He lived in Camden, one of the most economically depressed cities in America. He had been looking for a job for months and was praying for one, according to family. So when the opportunity to work at the chocolate factory came around, he took it. He was getting just over the minimum wage, with no benefits, sick days, or even the promise of a future job, as a temporary employee. And worker safety was far less stringent on a non-union plant of contractors like Lyons & Sons.

In this case, OSHA is investigating, and Lyons & Sons have shut the illegal production facility down. But how many other factories are out there, beyond the reach of OSHA, operating in violation of current law, and unwilling to do anything about it because the risks from federal regulators are so minimal?

That's why we need the Protect America's Workers Act to give workers like Vincent Smith more protections. Death by chocolate may sound funny, but it's no laughing matter.

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