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Federal labor investigators say poultry company's inaction led to the death of a teenage worker

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi poultry plant's failure to follow safety protocols led to the death of a 16-year-old worker who was pulled into a machine, federal regulators said Tuesday.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration found numerous safety violations in its investigation of the July workplace accident that caused the death of Duvan Pérez, a Guatemalan teenager and contract worker at the Mar-Jac Poultry plant in Hattiesburg, the agency said in a news release.

“Mar-Jac Poultry is aware of how dangerous the machinery they use can be when safety standards are not in place to prevent serious injury and death," said Kurt Petermeyer, a regional administrator for OSHA. “The company’s inaction has directly led to this terrible tragedy, which has left so many to mourn this child’s preventable death.”

After the accident, Labor Department officials said Pérez's death offered a reminder that children remain vulnerable to exploitation in the U.S. workplace.

OSHA did not name Pérez, but the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity — a nonprofit focused on issues related to immigration — previously identified Pérez as a contract worker at the plant.

Mar-Jac did not immediately respond to phone and email messages requesting comment. The company, which has facilities in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, has 15 business days to contest OSHA’s findings.

The Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division has also opened a child labor investigation into the plant.

In 2022, the Department found that more than 3,800 children had been working illegally at 835 companies in various industries. In April, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the Labor Department had reported a 69% increase since 2018 in the number of children being employed illegally in the U.S.

Federal workplace safety officials launched a probe into Pérez’s July 14 death after Mar-Jac, a Georgia-based poultry production company, said the teenager had died while “conducting sanitation operations.” OSHA investigators found that Pérez died while performing a deep clean of a machine in the plant's deboning area. He became caught in a still-energized machine's rotating shaft and was pulled in, officials said.

Before authorities arrived at the plant, Perez’s coworkers had tried to extract him from the equipment, which stretched to the plant’s ceiling, according to police records obtained by The Associated Press in July.

Investigators said that plant managers should have ensured that workers disconnected the machine's power and followed steps to prevent the machine from unintentionally starting during the cleaning. They cited Mar-Jac for 17 workplace violations and proposed $212,646 in penalties.

Perez was the second employee in just over two years to be killed on the job at the Hattiesburg plant. Over that period, there was also an amputation at the plant. OSHA previously cited Mar-Jac Poultry in 2020 and 2021 for four safety violations in three separate incidents.

“Only about two years later nothing has changed and the company continues to treat employee safety as an afterthought, putting its workers at risk," Petermeyer said.

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Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him at @mikergoldberg.