In the cold packing department of Seaboard Foods, Melissa Bailey was boxing up a cut of pork when she lost her balance. The box she was holding slipped from her hands. She fell to the ground. When she got up, her left hand stung.
A nurse told her it was “break-in pain,” but Bailey insisted that this pain was different from what she experienced in her first months on the job, she said. The nurse massaged her hand and sent her back to work, though Bailey kept returning and asking for help, only to be turned away. She eventually notified the union, which helped her secure an X-ray at a local clinic.
The doctor determined Bailey’s hand was sprained and sent her back to work with a doctor’s note requesting a less taxing position.
Instead, management reassigned her to a more difficult task, lifting even heavier portions of meat than before, she said.
In an industry known for severe injuries, Seaboard Foods, the country’s second-largest pork producer, appears, on paper, to be a safer workplace than many of its competitors. Data it has to report to the federal government claim workers suffered fewer injuries compared to the plant’s peers.
In the past five years, the Guymon plant’s incident rate—the number of injuries and illnesses at the plant divided by the number of hours all employees worked—has remained around 1, according to an Investigate Midwest analysis of data the company provided to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. That’s well below the industry’s median incident rate for that time period of about 4.
But seven former and one current Seaboard employee told Investigate Midwest their serious injuries—ones that required treatment beyond OSHA’s definition of first aid and often needing X-rays or MRIs—were treated like minor scrapes or bruises.
The Investigate Midwest investigation found:
- Seaboard Foods employees with serious injuries said they were only provided first aid treatment. One man was given ice and painkillers for what he later discovered was a fractured vertebrae and elbow contusion. He had to return to the production floor.
- Employees said that the company ignored doctors’ notes requesting restricted work or time off, and that they were pushed to work through injuries. One employee said he couldn’t get excused time off to recover from an inflamed disc and strained muscle despite bringing in a doctor’s note.
- Aggressive drug testing at the nurse’s office discouraged employees from seeking help when they were in pain, according to one worker who used marijuana after work to cope with the physical demands of the job. The company confirmed drug testing can occur before treatment.
- The number of injuries reported at Seaboard Foods increased from 2019 to 2020 when the company increased the speed of production. And the union suspects the injury numbers submitted by the company to federal authorities are lower than reality. “All injuries or illnesses that meet the definition of an OSHA recordable have been logged” correctly, a company spokesman said.
- Seaboard’s policies incentivized supervisors to keep lower-ranking employees on the job despite pain or injuries, according to a former supervisor. If employees drop out due to injury, they might not be replaced, making the job harder for workers and supervisors left behind. A low retention rate can also endanger a supervisor’s position, the former supervisor said.
Seaboard’s “disregard for the wellbeing of their workers is completely adverse and grossly disconnected with the realities of these employees in this plant,” said Martin Rosas, the president of UFCW Local 2, the union that represents Seaboard’s workers.
Seaboard Foods did not make plant management or company executives available for interviews despite several requests by Investigate Midwest. Instead, a spokesperson responded by email and denied some of the allegations by former employees.
“Our employees’ safety is always our top priority, and this is the guiding principle for any decisions we make as a company or program we put in place,” Seaboard Foods spokesman David Eaheart said in the email. “To that end, we continually modify our processes and equipment, create additional positions where needed and provide ongoing training to help ensure each worker’s job assignment is manageable and safe.”
Eaheart said that Seaboard employees have a right to decline work reassignments. But Rosas said workers like Bailey are rarely given a choice in their assignment to a new position, and workers interviewed by Investigate Midwest said they felt they didn’t have a choice.
The plant is owned by Seaboard Corporation, a publicly traded Fortune 500 company with international investments in food, energy and transportation. It owns Butterball, a staple of Thanksgiving dinner, and has a close business partnership with Triumph Foods, another large meatpacking plant. Seaboard sells pork under the brands Prairie Fresh and Daily’s Premium Meats.
Situated in the remote panhandle region of Oklahoma, Guymon is home to around 11,000 people. When Seaboard Foods opened in 1995, it transformed the small ranching town into a hub for pork processing and brought in thousands of immigrant workers to staff the plant. Today, the plant employs more than 2,500 people.
More than one-third of Guymon residents are foreign-born and nearly 60 percent of the population is Hispanic.
On a recent August day, a perpetual stream of dusty aluminum livestock trailers passed by the truck stops, churches and Mexican restaurants that line the town’s main streets. A billboard two miles down the road from Seaboard Foods advertised job openings at a JBS plant in Iowa in English and Spanish.
Like many towns dominated by meatpacking, the pandemic hit Guymon hard. More than 40 percent of the plant’s workforce tested positive for the virus, and several died.
But, in another sign to the union that the plant downplays workplace injuries and illnesses, Seaboard Foods only reported a few “respiratory conditions” to federal authorities in 2020, sparking a complaint by the workers’ union.
Workers pain often ignored
Kristen Kinsella, 20, started working at the Seaboard Foods plant right after high school. She started out trimming meat in May 2019 but was quickly promoted to supervisor, where she was responsible for making sure her section of the line hit production quotas, and then to manager.
As she moved up the ranks, she grew frustrated with the treatment of workers—including herself—and became a steward for UFCW Local 2.
As a union steward, she accompanied employees to their meetings with the human resources department to bear witness, inform the workers of their rights and monitor the company’s actions.
In those meetings, she saw some human resources employees blame injuries on “break-in pain” or deny that their injuries occurred at work, she said.
Because meatpacking jobs are so physically demanding, most new employees go through a period of muscle soreness from adjusting to the backbreaking work. But even after the initial soreness faded, some members of the nursing staff would misdiagnose injuries as break-in pain, Kinsella said. She added that some nurses didn’t accommodate outside doctors’ notes or grant time off.
The situation forced injured workers to choose between pushing through the pain and calling out of work, which results in a “point” added to the employee’s record. Once a union member reaches 12 points, they can be fired.
Eaheart said in a statement that the “points system is not a disciplinary tool and does not adversely impact an employee for being late from a break or reporting an injury more than 24 hours after it occurred.” He said employees who’ve received medical care for a work-related injury or illness “will not receive attendance points for absences related to that injury or illness.”
In order to receive medical leave and avoid accumulating points, an employee must receive a form from the nursing staff, have their doctor fill it out, then return it to the plant’s medical staff. If an employee is assigned restrictions on what work they can perform, the employee has a right to accept or decline the alternative work assignment, Eaheart…