Alicia had been an employee of the Rich Products Corporation food processing plant in Crest Hill, Ill. for three years, she says, when her arm was caught in a machine, an injury the company would invoke the next day to justify her abrupt firing. She had worked her way up to the position of lead operator of a machine that makes trays for the frozen pizzas produced at the plant. Rich Products, headquartered in Buffalo, N.Y., is a major manufacturer of frozen foods, with annual sales of more than $3.3 billion, making it the 117th largest private company in the United States.
But Alicia says she was not working at her normal station on May 17, 2022. She was, instead, at a machine that assembles sheets of cardboard into boxes, a position for which she had never been formally trained, but helped out on occasionally, she recalls.
“The machine had stopped working,” says Alicia, who is 30 and enjoys bowling and hanging out with her big extended family during her free time. (A pseudonym is being used to protect her from career repercussions.) A coworker was trying to figure out how to fix it, Alicia says. “She opened the door to the box machine, and I was telling her how to work it, how to use the box machine, which way to turn the box,” says Alicia. “But I forgot my hand was right there, and the roller was on, and my hand started rolling in.”
The machine “ate my arm up,” says Alicia, who recalls screaming with pain while her limb was stuck. It took maintenance what felt like at least 30 minutes to disassemble the device so that her arm could be removed, she says. “It took a lot of skin off me.”
That description is consistent with a photograph of her injury she sent to In These Times and Workday Magazine. It shows closely knit lacerations and tears the width of her forearm, extending from her wrist to the middle of her forearm. Anastasia Christman, senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, says machines are supposed to have sufficient safety guards to prevent this kind of injury.
The company took her to the clinic and asked her to take a drug test before receiving medical care. The next day she was fired — the company cited both the injury and her refusal to take the drug test.
Rich Products already had a track record of workplace injuries. In July 2021, a worker at the plant died when his arm was pulled into a machine. Adewale Ogunyemi was 42 years old and employed as a sanitation worker at the facility. The incident occurred when he was cleaning a machine. “The employee’s right arm was pulled into the machine rollers and he was crushed,” states an inspection detail from OSHA.
Just over a year ago, OSHA announced it was placing Rich Products on its Severe Violator Enforcement Program for the death, citing the company’s failure to implement “lockout/tagout” procedures to prevent the machine from accidentally turning on. OSHA concluded that Rich Products had committed a “willful violation” and fined the company $145,027.
“It’s significant to be put on the Severe Violator Enforcement Program. It’s for companies that have a total disregard for worker safety, quite frankly,” Scott Allen from the Department of Labor told In These Times and Workday Magazine. “It’s for the really bad apples.”
Before Ogunyemi, two other workers had died in workplace accidents at the Crest Hill plant since 2016: a subcontractor, and a worker at a construction company.
According to OSHA 300 and 300A logs provided to In These Times and Workday Magazine by Warehouse Workers for Justice, a workers’ rights nonprofit that is affiliated with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America union, numerous workplace injuries preceded Ogunyemi’s death. From 2016 to 2019, there were at least 56 injuries reported at the plant, including a hand crushed by a conveyor belt, broken fingers and falls. The company, which employs around 375 people at the Crest Hill plant, and more than 7,400 people across the country, has faced numerous fines for workplace health and safety violations at its other locations.
In an email responding to a request for comment, Allison Conte, director of corporate communications for Rich Products, disputed that Alicia was assigned to the machine, instead stating that “her shift involved general labor only.” But Alicia has been consistent in describing her job role as working at the machine. Tommy Carden, an organizer for Warehouse Workers for Justice, met with Alicia on June 29, six weeks after the incident occurred. Alicia told him that she had been a “machine operator” when the injury happened, according to notes of the meeting that were written by Carden at the time, and viewed by In These Times and Workday Magazine.
Conte acknowledged Alicia’s injury, but depicted the accident as the worker’s fault. Conte says that Alicia reached “past a 29-inch safety guard into a box-folding machine (situated nearest to her manual task), and in doing so, inexplicably crawled onto a moving conveyor belt into the mechanism. The machine automatically stopped, but she caught her hand and wrist between the conveyor belt and a first set of rollers.” (Alicia says this version of events is untrue.)
“It’s disgusting that they tried to blame her for her injury,” says Carden. “We met with [Alicia] shortly after she was injured, and we saw the injuries on her arm, and she showed us pictures of the injuries when it was far more fresh. She couldn’t stop crying because of what had happened to her. It was clearly a traumatic experience.”
The General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act says that an employer is required to provide “employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”
Conte told In These Times and Workday Magazine, “We’ve worked hard to create a culture of safety.”
But NELP’s Anastasia Christman says the company’s comment on the cause of Alicia’s injury “raises several red flags about how they look at safety.”
“I find it telling that Ms. Conte talks about creating a ‘culture of safety,’ which points the finger at behaviors, making the workers the ones who are being held accountable for safety — not the employer as is written in the law,” Christman says. Recent decades have seen the rise of “behavior-based safety programs,” which seek to shift blame to worker culture and behavior, rather than employers, for workplace injuries and accidents.
“The fact is, if there is not a hazard, people don’t get hurt,” Christman says. “The allegations against this worker are trying to avoid the fact that there is not a sufficient safety guard on this machine to keep someone’s arm from going into it.”
Once Alicia was freed from the machine, the plant safety manager drove her to an urgent care facility — Physicians Immediate Care at 800 N Larkin Ave. in Joliet, Ill. — according to the accounts of both Alicia and Conte.
When they arrived, Alicia had a painful, exposed wound, she says. Yet, as the first step, before Alicia was treated, she says the plant safety manager instructed her to take a drug test, which was offered by the person working at the front desk of the clinic.
Alicia says she refused, arguing that treatment was more urgent. “Y’all worried about the wrong things,” she recalls saying. “You need to wrap my arm, then worry about a drug test.”
Alicia says she told the safety manager that she was going to the hospital, stating: “Drive me or I’ll walk.”
The plant safety manager agreed to drive Alicia to Ascension Saint Joseph Hospital nearby, and her wound was cleaned and treated there, Alicia says.
Conte confirmed that Alicia was asked to take a drug test at the urgent care clinic. “Given her unsafe actions surrounding the incident, which under the plant’s regulations called for drug testing, she was asked to take a blood-alcohol content (BAC) test and drug screen at the urgent care facility. She refused and walked out of the building before being treated.”
In Conte’s telling, it was the plant safety manager who convinced Alicia to go to the hospital after she walked out of the urgent care clinic. Conte says that Alicia again refused a drug test at the hospital, but Alicia denies that she was asked a second time.
“At no time was medical treatment withheld, nor was the drug test a required precursor to treatment,” Conte says.
But Christman says that, in such a situation, coercive pressure is implied. “If the plant safety manager is the one who’s going there, and that person is saying you should take this blood alcohol test, there’s a power dynamic at play. And whether or not that person says you are required to do it, the fact it was someone in that authority position seemingly standing between her and medical care and making this suggestion, there are implications of repercussions at work if you don’t do it.”
“At the same time someone is in pain or afraid or suffering from a debilitating injury,” she adds, “the fact that they would take that to this aggressive prove-your-innocence stance, at a time when someone under their responsibility is suffering, to me makes it clear they aren’t truly committed to the safety of their employees first and foremost.”
There is evidence that requiring drug tests when workers are injured on the job has a chilling effect on the reporting of injuries. In 2009, the AFL-CIO published a survey of 868 workers from seven unions representing sectors like construction, manufacturing, and mining. It found that “70% of workers surveyed reported that their workplaces had mandatory drug or alcohol testing following a workplace injury.” The study determined that, “of those policies, 60% had the effect of discouraging reporting while less than 9% actually encouraged reporting.”
Alicia’s experience does not appear to be an isolated case. In These Times and Workday Magazine spoke with an individual who worked at the Crest Hill plant from 2019 to 2022, and requested anonymity. They said they had heard of three workers who were instructed to take drug tests when they were injured. Asked how they could be certain, the individual said, “I know them. They told me.”
Conte defended the company’s request for a drug test, stating, “Our plants have a drug-testing policy that each associate signs at the time of employment.” While she declined to provide a copy of the policy, she paraphrased it as stating “that if an associate is observed or considered to be impaired by a supervisor, the associate will be required to perform a drug and/or alcohol test.”
Alicia, who says she was not under the influence of drugs, has a learning disability that affects her reading comprehension, for which she receives some medical benefits (which her mother confirmed). She tells In These Times and Workday Magazine that she is not confident that she understood the content of the paperwork that she signed upon being hired. According to Christman, if Rich Products was aware of the disability and didn’t provide accommodations to help her understand the document, the company could be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
When asked whether managers had been aware of Alicia’s disability or accommodated it in any way, Conte stated, “At this point, we’ve shared all we’re able to about this incident. I’m sure you understand that we would not disclose an associate’s health/disability information to a third party.”
But, according to Christman, even if a worker did fully comprehend the signed document, this does not mean such paperwork is good labor practice.
“By putting those sorts of provisions in legalese and fine print that a worker sees only at the moment they’ve been called in to start their employment, they may have already rejected other job offers, planned their life around the anticipated incomes, to spring that on them, even if they did read it, it’s not really a free choice to sign it,” she said. “It is very duplicitous and coercive and ends up holding workers to any number of ostensible waivers of their legal rights.”
Alicia says she was asked to come into work the next day, and when she did, management pulled her into a meeting and explained that she was being fired for refusing the drug test, and for the injury itself. “They said it was my fault that my arm got stuck in my machine,” she says.
Her recollection tracks with the account of Conte, who says Alicia “was terminated in person for cause (safety violation of climbing into a machine) and for behavior (refusing the required post-incident drug test).”
According to Christman, the company’s firing of Alicia “will have a chilling effect on other coworkers who know what happened and know if they are hurt they will be blamed, and if they ask for medical care, they will be followed by the safety manager, and if they feel like it’s a violation of their privacy to get a drug test before medical care, they will be fired. This virtually guarantees that some number of her coworkers will make the choice not to report a safety violation or a health and safety concern — not to OSHA, not to their supervisor. And, as a result, they will be in greater danger.”
Rich Products sells food items to Chicago Public Schools, the district’s Nutrition Support Services spokesperson confirmed to In These Times and Workday Magazine over email. In 2017, the Chicago Public School Board voted to join the Good Food Purchasing Program, which is supposed to guide institutions to purchase from suppliers that meet certain ethical standards, including a “valued workforce,” according to a press release from the Center for Good Food Purchasing.
Laura Edwards-Orr, director of institutional impact for the Center for Good Food Purchasing, told In These Times and Workday Magazine that institutions that are part of the program should “reach out to suppliers in their supply chain who’ve been identified by our team as having repeat and/or egregious labor law violations to understand what actions have been taken to address the issues.” Edwards-Orr said that Rich Products “was flagged for outreach in a subset of institutions that were purchasing from them,” but was unable to disclose which institutions she was referring to, or what came of that outreach.
“It’s concerning that public money is going to a company that’s proved itself to be such an abusive employer,” says Carden. “CPS needs to know what’s been happening at Rich Products so they can warn the company to clean up their operations or lose the opportunity to get public money and supply food to Chicago’s kids.”
Alicia lives in Joliet, a manufacturing and warehousing hub that neighbors Crest Hill, in a home with her grandparents.
Her arm has healed, but the incident left its mark: She says her career has been set back. Within weeks of losing her job, she found a new one. While the work is easy, she says, she is no longer in a leadership role, and her pay at the new job is lower.
“I gotta start all over.”
This article is a joint publication of In These Times and Workday Magazine, a non-profit newsroom devoted to holding the powerful accountable through the perspective of workers.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
We've partnered with the publisher, Haymarket Books, and 100% of your donation will go towards supporting In These Times.
Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.