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Meatpacker IBP Fined $2.5 Million, a Record, for Not Reporting Injuries

July 22, 1987|JAMES RISEN | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — IBP Inc., the nation's largest meatpacker, was fined a record $2.59 million Tuesday by the Labor Department for failing to report more than 1,000 injuries and illnesses over a two-year period at a huge Nebraska plant that labor union leaders have charged has one of the highest injury rates of any manufacturing facility in the nation.

The Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration also charged that IBP, a subsidiary of Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corp., attempted last January to cover up the fact that it intentionally had maintained inaccurate injury logs at its Dakota City, Neb., meatpacking plant.

OSHA said IBP set up a task force of 50 employees who were assigned to doctor the logs during a period when the company was keeping federal investigators at bay by denying them access to its plant until they had obtained a subpoena.

Charges Denied

IBP officials denied OSHA's allegations and vowed to challenge the fine. "The charges are an indication of inconsistent enforcement by OSHA and the Labor Department and of unclear legal requirements," IBP spokesman Gary Michaelson said.

The company, based in Dakota City, dismissed the violations as "paper work issues" and said the OSHA citation does not charge that IBP had disregarded the safety of its employees.

But Assistant Labor Secretary John A. Pendergrass, OSHA's administrator, said: "This case is the worst example of under-reporting of injuries and illnesses to workers ever encountered by OSHA in its 16-year history."

The fine was by far the largest ever levied by OSHA, surpassing the $1.5-million penalty issued against Chrysler Corp. earlier this month for health and safety violations at a Delaware assembly plant.

OSHA cited IBP, formerly known as Iowa Beef Processors, for "willfully failing to record" 1,038 job-related injuries and illnesses at Dakota City from January, 1985, through December, 1986.

Pendergrass stressed that the attempted cover-up added to the seriousness of IBP's offense. "We want employers to bring their records into compliance with federal rules and guidelines right now," he said. "But we can hardly credit anyone for attempting to correct the problem when the OSHA inspectors are standing at the gate."

Although the charges were limited primarily to record-keeping violations, safety specialists in the labor movement often have noted that inaccurate record-keeping is symptomatic of deeper safety problems.

They complain that the Reagan Administration's policy of conducting full-scale safety inspections of manufacturing plants only when management reports above-average injury rates provides companies with an incentive to under-report injuries to avoid inspections of unsafe facilities.

In fact, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents workers at Dakota City, said evidence it has gathered shows that injury rates at Dakota City were 50% higher than the figures reported by the company in 1985 and 1986. In addition, the union charged, the number of workdays lost because of injuries was double the level IBP reported.

Meanwhile, a House panel announced that it is studying whether to ask the Justice Department to press perjury charges against IBP Chairman Robert L. Peterson for allegedly lying to Congress about injuries at the Dakota City plant.

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), chairman of the House Government Operations subcommittee on employment and housing, said his staff has evidence that "strongly suggests the possibility of perjury" by Peterson during a hearing in May. Michaelson would not comment on those allegations.

OSHA is also said to be studying the possibility of recommending criminal prosecution for some aspects of IBP's violations.

The food workers union said the charges against IBP provide "ample evidence of the depth" of the health and safety problems in meatpacking, which is considered one of the most dangerous industries in the nation.

Union officials said the Administration's willingness to get tough with the industry leader may force smaller meatpackers to pay more attention to health and safety issues.

Need to Act Cited

"This is the biggest company in the industry, and if they are not paying attention to safety, then others in the industry feel they can't afford to," said one union official who asked not to be identified. "So if you don't tackle the leader, you're not going to get the smaller ones."

The government's action comes in the midst of a bitter labor dispute at Dakota City. Union workers at the plant were locked out by IBP last December. The workers officially have been on strike since March, when the company reopened the plant and began to hire non-union replacements, including many Southeast Asian refugees recruited from around the country. Along with wages and benefits, safety has been a major issue in the dispute.

The government's charges against IBP also came just one day after Occidental announced that it might sell part of IBP to the public.

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