Federal investigators say Mississippi poultry plant directly responsible for 16-year-old's death

HATTIESBURG, Miss. — Inadequate safety standards at a poultry processing plant in Mississippi led to the death of a 16-year-old sanitation worker — the second fatality to occur at the facility in just over two years, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Tuesday.

Duvan Perez, an indigenous Mayan from Guatemala, died July 14, 2023, during a workplace accident at the Mar-Jac Poultry processing facility in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Duvan had been cleaning equipment when he was pulled into the rotating shaft of a machine and sustained fatal injuries, according to OSHA.

Federal investigators found that the facility had failed to follow proper "lockout/tagout" procedures, which safeguard employees from an unexpected energization or startup of machines and equipment.

"(Lockout/tagout) procedures were not utilized to disconnect power to the machine and a lockout/tagout device was not used to prevent the machine from unintentionally starting during the cleaning," OSHA said in a news release Tuesday.

OSHA cited Mar-Jac Poultry with 14 "serious" and three "other-than-serious" violations, and proposed a $212,646 fine.

Separately, the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division is investigating whether the facility or its subcontractor violated child labor laws. Federal child labor laws prohibit anyone under the age of 18 from working at any meat-processing plant.

“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," OSHA Regional Administrator Kurt Petermeyer in Atlanta said in a statement. "The company’s inaction has directly led to this terrible tragedy, which has left so many to mourn this child’s preventable death."

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Death leads to hiring investigation

The death of Perez made national headlines, sparking criticism from activists and federal officials.

Perez was hired by an unnamed staffing agency while using the identity of a 32-year-old man, according to Hattiesburg Patriot News Media. The news outlet was the first to report the teen's age and that he was working under a false identity.

Following Perez's death, Mar-Jac Poultry denied knowing Perez was a minor until after the incident. The company said it contracts with staffing companies to fill positions at its facilities, an agreement that requires those third parties to verify job applicants are legally qualified to work.

The fatal incident led to the Department of Labor's investigation into how Mar-Jac Poultry hired Perez and a separate OSHA investigation into the incident itself. Less than two weeks after the incident, the department announced the results of an investigation by its newly formed child labor task force in an effort to combat exploitative child labor practices nationwide.

OSHA previously cited Mar-Jac Poultry for another fatal incident

Mar-Jac Poultry was cited by OSHA in 2021 after an employee’s shirt sleeve was caught in a machine and they were pulled in. According to the agency, the employee's body was pinned against the support and the machine's carousel, causing fatal injuries.

"Following the fatal incident in May 2021 Mar-Jac Poultry should have enforced strict safety standards in its facility," Petermeyer said in the statement. "Only about two years later nothing has changed and the company continues to treat employee safety as an afterthought, putting its workers at risk. No worker should be placed in a preventable, dangerous situation, let alone a child."

Mar-Jac Poultry was founded in 1954 and raises live birds for poultry production, according to OSHA. The company is headquartered in Gainesville, Georgia, and has facilities in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

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U.S. sees surge in child labor violations

Since 2018, the Department of Labor said it has seen a 69% increase in children being employed illegally by companies. And during fiscal year 2023, the department's Wage and Hour Division found an 88% increase in the number of children employed in violation since 2019.

Nearly 5,800 kids were employed illegally during fiscal year 2023, according to the department, which assessed more than $8 million in penalties for violations − an 83% increase in penalties from the year prior. Violations range from physical injuries, or even death in some cases, to children working overnight shifts that violate the Federal Labor Standards Act.

Contributing: Rachel Looker and Eric Lagatta, USA TODAY

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mississippi poultry plant Mar-Jac Poultry responsible for teen's death