HENDERSON, Ky. - Witnesses began testifying Monday concerning two gruesome deaths three years ago at a Tyson Foods Inc. chicken waste-rendering plant in Robards, Ky.
Tyson is appealing charges filed by the Kentucky Labor Cabinet's Occupational Safety and Health Program that the company committed willful violations of worker safety regulations and should be penalized $139,500.
Tyson and the state agree that the company had safety precaution guidelines in place and that the guidelines weren't followed the night of the double fatality.
But the company maintains that the victims were at fault, while the Labor Cabinet said Tyson failed to properly enforce its own safety program.
The matter concerns the events of July 22, 1999, at the Tyson protein plant, where chicken feathers, blood, dead chickens, hatchery wastes and other poultry byproducts are cooked and processed to be used in dog food and other animal feed.
Witnesses at the hearing in the Henderson County Public Library testified that James Dame Jr., 40, an hourly production worker from Slaughters, Ky., was emptying a "tote" or container full of chicken waste into an underground bin at the "raw dock" of the protein plant.
Dame lifted the tote with a forktruck, but when he lowered the forks to empty the container, the tote slid off and fell into the 10-foot-deep bin. He contacted the maintenance crew, and leadman/maintenance mechanic Scotty Richmond arrived with a crane.
A seat called a boatswain chair was attached to the crane, and Dame was lowered into the bin to attach a chain to the tote so it could be hauled up.
Richmond and his brother, maintenance welder Eugene Richmond, testified that this method was commonly used for retrieving totes that periodically fell into the waste bins.
Scotty Richmond said a co-worker gave him the signal to raise Dame. But, Richmond said, "When he (Dame) got up to where I could see him, he fell over backwards" back into the bin.
Another co-worker, truck driver Larry Boling of Henderson, said he ran over, but Dame had disappeared beneath the pool of chicken waste. "The only thing I could see was his white hard hat" floating on top.
The night-shift production supervisor, Michael Hallum, 24, of Madisonville, Ky., was immediately summoned by radio and arrived within a minute or so, witnesses said.
"He paced back and forth saying, 'Oh my God, oh my God,' " Boling said. "Then he told Scotty, 'Lower me down, now.' " The boatswain's chair had disappeared in the bin, so Hallum climbed onto the metal "headache ball" at the end of the crane's cable and was lowered into the pit.
"He was down for about 10 seconds, maximum. Then he said, 'Get me up, now,' " Boling said. "He got close to the top, holding on to the cable with both hands, then he just let go and fell back down, feet first."
In his subsequent investigation, Henderson County Coroner Don Cantley concluded that the two men had been overcome by fumes inside the vat and suffocated.
"This is a very sad occasion, a very tragic accident," David Sarvadi, a Tyson attorney, told state hearing officer Thomas J. Hellman in his opening remarks.
But, Sarvadi continued, "The employees did not follow rules that had been established. They did not follow their training."
Tyson hopes to prove that it had taken precautions against such accidents. It had ordered chains welded to the totes; the chains were supposed to be secured to the boom of the forktruck to prevent it from sliding off into the waste bins. But the Richmond brothers acknowledged that workers didn't always follow the procedure.
The company also contends that workers were instructed not to dump the chicken waste directly into the bins, but rather to dump it onto the floor and scoop it into the bin using a piece of equipment called a Bobcat.
Tyson also insists that it provided training on confined-space entry, such as going into a poorly ventilated area where chemical fumes might accumulate, and provided equipment such as safety harnesses, breathing apparatus and an oxygen sensor.
"Had they followed the rules - even if they didn't follow all, if they followed some - the accident would not have happened as it did," attorney Sarvadi said.
The Labor Cabinet, meanwhile, presented witnesses who said that hourly employees and supervisors alike routinely retrieved dropped totes just as Dame attempted to do.
While acknowledging that he had signed documents indicating he had received training in confined-space entry and other areas, Scotty Richmond (who, like his brother, no longer works at Tyson) insisted that it was only classroom training, "not hands-on training."
"Tyson did have a confined-space program, but did not follow it," John Parsons, a Labor Cabinet attorney, told hearing officer Hellmann. "It did not take the precautions to prevent the fatalities."
Testimony in the hearing is expected to last up to three weeks. Then the two sides will have several months to present written briefs and responses. Ultimately, Hellmann will make a recommendation on the matter to the Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission for a final decision.
The review commission will consider the facts in the case in determining whether the Labor Cabinet was proper in finding that Tyson had committed "willful" violations, meaning it knew it was violating safety regulations but proceeded with what one attorney described as "plain indifference or intentional disregard."
Tyson's Sarvadi insisted that the law "does not make an employer a guarantor of safety. It requires that an employer make all reasonable steps" to comply with the regulations.
In separate matters, the families of Dame and Hallum have filed civil lawsuits against Tyson.