ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Each day hundreds of thousands of people go to work in slaughterhouses to prepare the poultry, beef and pork that Americans eat. We heard on MORNING EDITION that these workplaces are among the most hazardous in the country. These plants are safer than they were decades ago, but when there are violations, critics say the penalties are not high enough to force change. From member station KUNC in Colorado, Luke Runyon reports.
LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: On the worst day of Greta Horner's life, she was dressed in a burlap robe, waiting by the window for her husband to come home from work so she could head to church to teach vacation Bible school.
GRETA HORNER: And I was dressed up in a costume like old Jerusalem.
RUNYON: Ralph, who his family calls Ed, should have been pulling in the driveway any minute, home from his overnight shift as a maintenance guy at the beef plant in Greeley, Colo. It's owned by JBS, the world's largest meat packer. But instead of his car, one from the coroner's office pulled in.
HORNER: And they seemed to be going so slowly. And I thought, this isn't good.
RUNYON: Greta Horner went down to the gate.
HORNER: They introduced themselves. And I just said, don't tell me. I don't even want to know. Don't tell me. Don't tell me because I just knew.
RUNYON: Ed was killed a few hours earlier in an industrial accident at the plant. He was oiling a conveyor belt.
HORNER: And his sleeve got caught.
RUNYON: The machine pulled him in, his shirt bunching up around his neck and mouth.
HORNER: So he died of asphyxiation.
RUNYON: Three other JBS employees in North America died from injuries sustained on the job that same year in 2014, all within five months of each other. Horner's death triggered a flurry of activity for government regulators. The law required the conveyor belt he was working on to be covered by a metal guard. But this one wasn't, and inspectors with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the plant.
HORNER: It was something that they had been cited for before and hadn't fixed. And because of that action or inaction, Ed died.
RUNYON: In a press release after the incident, OSHA scolded the meat packer, calling the death preventable. But after a year of negotiation, the total fines for the violations that led to Ed Horner's death - $38,500.
DEBBIE BERKOWITZ: It's embarrassingly low, and because of that, it's, you know, unclear exactly what kind of deterrent effect it really had.
RUNYON: That's Debbie Berkowitz, a former senior OSHA official and now with the National Employment Law Project. She's worried that the agency is starved for resources.
BERKOWITZ: Unfortunately it would take them a hundred years to get to every workplace just once to inspect. So really a lot is up to the company.
RUNYON: An investigation by Harvest Public Media found OSHA's initial fines for safety violations in meat and poultry plants are, on average, just under $20,000 per case, but companies end up paying even less, negotiating down to about $11,000. Berkowitz says compare that to other federal agencies, like the EPA. If that same plant was found to be polluting a nearby river, the fines could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
HERB GIBSON: Hi there. How are you doing?
RUNYON: Good. How are you?
RUNYON: Herb Gibson runs the OSHA office in Denver. He says the fine JBS paid for the violations that led to Ed Horner's death was higher than most. And even when violations contribute to a worker death, the agency can't charge companies more money because of that.
GIBSON: The fines could be modified for fatal cases, but that's not what the law - does not have a separate penalty for a fatality. And that would require legislation to change that particular provision.
DOUG SCHULT: We don't need OSHA to come in and find this stuff. We need to find it ourselves.
RUNYON: That's Doug Schult, a human resources executive. He says the events of 2014, with four worker deaths, shook the company. Not only were JBS workers being killed, but safety blind spots weren't caught.
GIBSON: To me, that was the biggest thing that came out of this - is we're still missing some of these things that we should be seeing. How come we're not seeing them?
RUNYON: All it took was one unseen trap for Ed Horner to lose his life. One piece of wire mesh over that spinning conveyor belt could have saved his life. His wife, Greta, says she hopes the company understands that.
HORNER: They need to realize that everybody that works there is a human being with a life, and it's not just a statistic. It's a person.
RUNYON: And that realization is one piece of a puzzle to make slaughterhouses safer for the people preparing our meat every day. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Greeley, Colo.
SHAPIRO: That story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration focusing on agriculture and food.