Home News O.S.H.A. Investigating Mar-Jac Plant After 16-Year-Old Dies

O.S.H.A. Investigating Mar-Jac Plant After 16-Year-Old Dies

O.S.H.A. Investigating Mar-Jac Plant After 16-Year-Old Dies

Federal authorities have opened an investigation into a Mississippi chicken plant after a 16-year-old boy died following a workplace accident there, officials said on Tuesday.

The boy, identified by the local authorities as Duvan Tomas Perez, died on Friday night after becoming ensnared in a machine he was cleaning at the Mar-Jac Poultry processing plant in Hattiesburg, Miss., according to a statement by the company.

More details on how the underage worker died are pending a police investigation and an autopsy report, said Lisa Klem, the Forrest County deputy coroner.

Duvan immigrated to the United States from Guatemala roughly six years ago, according to Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity, a nonprofit organization that supports migrants in Mississippi. He had been a student at N.R. Burger Middle School in Hattiesburg, according to an obituary posted on Tuesday. His family members declined to comment on his death or the investigation.

Federal labor laws prohibit people under the age of 18 from operating and cleaning meat processing and packing equipment, which the U.S. Labor Department defines as “particularly hazardous.” Mississippi’s state labor laws ban minors from working in packing industries or positions that involve processing meat and poultry.

In a statement, the Mar-Jac plant called the death a “tragedy” and acknowledged that the boy “should not have been hired,” but claimed that it had been unaware of Duvan’s age. It added that it had relied on staffing companies to fill open positions because of an “unprecedentedly tight labor market” and to verify that every job applicant was legally qualified to work, though it did not specify which companies.

“It appears, at this point in the investigation, that this individual’s age and identity were misrepresented on the paperwork,” Mar-Jac Poultry said, adding that it would be auditing its staffing companies to ensure that the “error never happens again.”

In the past year, several states have introduced legislation making it easier for companies to put children to work. The states — including Iowa, Ohio and Arkansas — have proposed or passed bills expanding work hours and the types of jobs that minors can do, in part, to offset labor shortages.

These rollbacks, pushed primarily by Republican-dominated legislatures, come amid an influx of migrant workers to the United States that has been exacerbated by economic plight in their home countries. Many of the young workers come from Central America and are part of a shadowy work force toiling in grueling environments including slaughterhouses and sawmills, often in violation of child labor laws. From 2015 to 2022, cases involving child labor violations have increased by over 50 percent, according to Labor Department statistics.

Two Labor Department divisions — Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or O.S.H.A., and the Wage and Hour Division — have opened investigations into the facility, according to a department spokesperson. Mar-Jac Poultry said it was fully cooperating with the O.S.H.A investigation.

The Hattiesburg Police Department also said it was investigating the cause of death and that it had notified Mar-Jac’s management.

News of Duvan’s death circulated widely on social media over the weekend, igniting a conversation over labor practices in high-risk industries such as meat processing.

This was not the first workplace incident at the Mar-Jac Poultry plant in Hattiesburg, said Lorena Quiroz, director of the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity. In 2020, she said, a 33-year-old employee died after sustaining a serious injury in the plant’s battery charging room. Workers had been notifying the nonprofit of faulty equipment at the plant, Ms. Quiroz said, and O.S.H.A. investigated the incident.

“This is not new, and now we’re having children being subjected to these conditions,” said Ms. Quiroz.

In 2021, O.S.H.A. fined the plant over $11,000 for workplace violations after a separate episode in which an employee had the tip of her index finger severed on a conveyor belt, the agency said.

Founded in Georgia in 1954, Mar-Jac Poultry produces and supplies chicken for wholesalers and food services in the United States and abroad. It has offices in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.


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