After a six-month investigation prompted by the protests of student workers on an international exchange program, the Labor Department on Tuesday issued fines of $283,000 for health and safety violations against a company that operates a plant in Pennsylvania packing Hershey’s chocolates, saying it had covered up serious injuries to workers.
Ángel Franco/The New York Times
The 24-page citation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that the company, Exel, intentionally failed to report 42 serious injuries over four years to workers at the plant in Palmyra, Pa., or 43 percent of all such injuries in that period at the plant. The injuries, which were discovered by safety inspectors during their investigation, required medical treatment, and many were related to lifting and moving big boxes of Hershey’s chocolates along a packing line.
The inquiry by the agency, known as OSHA, was spurred by protests last August by hundreds of foreign students working in the plant under an international cultural exchange program run by the State Department. The findings by OSHA against Exel are another black eye for the Hershey Company resulting from moves by its contractor and subcontractors to hire visiting foreign students as temporary laborers for strenuous work on fast-moving lines, packing Reese’s cups, Kit-Kat bars and Hershey’s Kisses.
The fines, which are high for workplace safety offenses, were levied because six of the nine violations were for willful failure by Exel to protect its workers. The agency did not say whether the injured workers included foreign students.
“It was very clear to us that dozens of injuries had not been recorded,” David Michaels, the assistant secretary of labor in charge of OSHA, said Tuesday. “Exel understood exactly what the law was on reporting. They were aware of these other injuries, and they just did not record them.”
Dr. Michaels said that although Exel had been cited primarily for lapses in its records, the failures were serious because they undermined OSHA’s ability to monitor work conditions at the plant.
“It’s not just paperwork,” he said. “It’s lives and limbs. The requirement to keep track of injuries is the basis for prevention of those injuries.”
While Hershey owns Eastern Distribution Center III, the vast plant in a neatly groomed industrial park in Palmyra, the chocolate company hired Exel to run it. Exel, a logistics contractor with operations in 511 facilities in the United States and Canada, in turn hired a subcontractor, SHS Staffing Solutions, which brought in the foreign students to pack chocolates for the Christmas holiday rush. A spokesman for the Hershey Company, Jeff Beckman, noted that Hershey had not been cited by OSHA, and he said he could not speak for Exel.
A spokeswoman for Exel, Lynn Anderson, said the company would contest the citations and fines before an independent commission that reviews OSHA decisions.
“I think it’s important to understand that this is one area of one site,” she said, “and the majority of the citations involve record-keeping.” While the appeal was under way, she said, she could not discuss the unreported injuries OSHA encountered in its investigation.
SHS was cited for one safety training violation and fined $5,000. Telephone calls to SHS on Tuesday were not returned.
About 200 foreign students, in the country under the State Department’s summer work travel program, walked out of the Palmyra plant in August, saying they had suffered many abuses during what was billed as a fun and educational cultural exchange. The students had paid fees of as much as $5,000 to come here to work for several months and travel around the country.
The students complained of neck, back and arm injuries from lifting and carrying boxes weighing up to 60 pounds. A complaint against Exel was filed on their behalf by the National Guestworker Alliance, a group that advocates for foreign temporary workers.
Many students’ stories are echoed in OSHA’s account of injuries that Exel did not report. In one case in June 2011, a packer was “throwing boxes” onto a line when one of them flipped off and hit the worker in the face, causing a corneal abrasion that required treatment in an emergency room. In another case last year, a packer suffered a “pop and a pain in the back,” which required rest for a month.
Labor officials said they had found an e-mail in which Exel managers explicitly decided not to provide audio protection for workers in the noisy plant, even though they were aware of the problem.
OSHA issued a letter on Tuesday to Exel saying that workers faced “ergonomic risk factors” from lifting and reaching for boxes, and urged a broad redesign of the packing process.
Jennifer J. Rosenbaum, legal director of the Guestworker Alliance, said the packing was too strenuous for an American worker to perform for a long time. “It was just another way they were turning long-term factory jobs into a job that even a 20-year-old student could not survive for more than a few months.”