This company gives formerly incarcerated people a second chance, but workers face on-the-job dangers

Even workers who feel indebted to Packers Sanitation Services Inc. for employing them acknowledge they have been put in situations

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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.

Carlos Lynn with his wife, Beverly.Courtesy Beverly Gamble

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."

Image: Chemical burn on Taylor Travis' foot

A chemical burn on Taylor Travis' foot.Courtesy Taylor Travis

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.