GREENVILLE, S.C. – The House of Raeford boasts that its plant here has gone more than 7 million hours without having a worker miss an entire shift because of injury.
But the North Carolina-based company has met that mark by bringing injured workers back to work — in some cases, just hours after having medical procedures, The Charlotte Observer reported Thursday.
The Observer reported that the company's own safety logs show that at least nine workers at the plant suffered amputated fingers or broken bones during the time the plant claimed to have millions of safe working hours dating to 2002.
The newspaper found four of the nine workers, and three said supervisors refused to give them time off to recuperate.
Among them was Cornelia Vicente, who was injured as she packaged chicken tenders in 2003. A a conveyor belt snagged her hand, snapped her right arm and ripped off the tip of her index finger.
Hours after surgery, a House of Raeford nurse came to the hospital and told her she was expected back at the plant early the next day, Vicente recalled.
The following morning, Vicente said she was wiping down tables and handing out supplies.
When she asked for time off, she said, the nurse said no.
"So, of course, I stayed so I didn't lose my job or my salary," Vicente said.
The nurse declined to be interviewed for the story.
The House of Raeford plant in Greenville employs about 700 workers. Insurance experts say a plant that size can save hundreds of thousands of dollars in workers' compensation costs by returning injured workers to their jobs quickly.
In addition, a plant that reports fewer lost-time accidents can reduce the likelihood of workplace safety inspections.
Caitlyn Davis, a former human resource administrator who quit in July, said injured employees often were required to work.
"People get hurt all the time," she said. "They (managers) just put them in the office to pass out supplies."
House of Raeford did not respond to specific allegations that it sometimes required injured employees to return to work.
"Employees are returned to light duty and to full duty on doctor's orders," Greenville complex manager Barry Cronic said in a written response to Observer questions.
Asked whether the company was motivated by workers' compensation costs, Cronic replied: "We followed doctor's orders on every case."
Vicente said she returned to work wearing a cast, her arm in a sling.
"It was very, very strong pain," she said. "My whole arm was swollen. I lost three fingernails."
Vicente said she soon was told to sweep, which she said was impossible because of her broken arm. "I wanted to be at home resting," she said.
Belem Villegas, an employment supervisor who left the plant in 2005, said Vicente occasionally asked for permission to go home.
"I'd have to say no," Villegas recalled. "(Managers) wouldn't let people go home."
The company fired Villegas in spring 2005, saying she was "accepting money to provide employment favors to potential employees." Villegas denied those claims. She said she was forced out because she advocated for Vicente and other injured workers.
The company recorded Vicente's broken arm — but not the amputated finger — on injury and illness logs that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires. Those logs show she was placed on light duty for 64 days.
Because she didn't miss a complete work shift, her injury was not counted as a lost-time accident.
House of Raeford did not respond to questions about Vicente. In workers' compensation documents, the company said it returned her to work following her doctor's orders.
The doctor who treated her, John Millon, declined to comment.
The company fired Vicente seven months after her accident after learning through a workers' compensation case that she is an illegal immigrant. A judge ruled in 2006 that Vicente was entitled to additional workers' compensation benefits because her injury limited her ability to work.
None of the seven former supervisors who spoke with the Observer was told to lie about accidents, they said. But some said plant managers became more focused on eliminating lost-time accidents after a worker was killed in 2001.
While the autopsy report showed the worker had too much alcohol in his system to legally drive a car, inspectors also found numerous safety problems, including a catwalk with inadequate safety railings.