The death of 16-year-old Duvan Perez in a Mississippi poultry plant accident in July 2023 is yet another reminder that children remain vulnerable to exploitation in the workplace.
According to an ABC news report, Duvan became the third teenager to die in an industrial accident this summer, in the middle of a push by lawmakers in some states to loosen child labor regulations to meet the growing demand for workers.
Duvan was working on a sanitation crew at Mar-Jac Poultry on July 14 when he became entangled in a conveyor belt that he was cleaning, news reports show. Before authorities arrived at the meat processing plant, the teen’s co-workers had tried to extricate him from the equipment. Police found the teenager dead. The cause of his death was listed as traumatic asphyxia and blunt force trauma.
Poultry Plant Accident and Other Recent Child Employee Deaths and Injuries
The poultry company has pointed to a staffing company that hired Duvan, saying his paperwork misrepresented his age. The company maintains he was hired “without our knowledge” and is undertaking a thorough audit to ensure this never happens again. In early July, 16-year-old Michael Schuls died after becoming entangled in a wood-stacking machine at the northern Wisconsin sawmill where he worked. In June, 16-year-old Will Hampton suffered fatal injuries after he was pinned between a semi-truck and its trailer at a landfill in Lee’s Summit, Missouri.
State and federal child labor laws prohibit minors from working in meat processing plants. These dangers were highlighted last year by one of the worst child labor cases in the department’s history, where children as young as 13 were found cleaning dangerous equipment such as bone saws and skull splitters in slaughterhouses across the country. Many of them suffered chemical buns while working overnight shifts and attending school during the day.
Workers’ rights advocates say the Mississippi poultry plant accident is just a drop in the bucket regarding the dangers faced by workers at similar facilities around the country that rely heavily on low-wage labor. They say it is emblematic of conditions in other poultry plants that no one hears about.
In that particular Mississippi plant, Duvan Perez is the third employee in the past three years to suffer fatal injuries on the job. During this time, there was an amputation at the plant. In 2020 and 2021, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited Mar-Jac Poultry for four safety violations in three separate incidents.
What Child Labor Laws Say
The Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, which enforces child labor laws, is looking into the cases of all three child workers who died this summer. According to officials, child labor violations have increased by 70% nationwide since 2018. The department recently fined McDonald’s franchises in Louisiana and Texas for employing teen workers for longer hours than allowed by law. The restaurants allowed 14 and 15-year-old workers to operate manual deep fryers and trash compactors – jobs that are off-limits for employees under 16.
Proposals from lawmakers around the country have pushed to let children work in more hazardous occupations for longer hours. Some of these proposals include allowing 14-year-olds to serve alcohol and allowing 14 and 15-year-old children to work past 9 p.m. during the school year, as well as removing age-verification requirements when hiring children. Labor Department officials have said that new laws enacted by states cannot legally violate minimum federal standards.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) prohibits employment under the age of 14, restricts the hours and types of work that can be performed by minors under 16, and prohibits the employment of minors under the age of 18 in any type of hazardous occupation. There are currently 17 Hazardous Occupation Orders (HO) establishing an 18-year minimum age for certain occupations that are declared particularly hazardous. These orders include a partial or total ban on the occupations or industries they cover, including manufacturing or storing explosives, coal mining, power-driven meat processing machines and hoisting apparatus, roofing operations, etc.
The Horrible Effects on Child Workers
The recent poultry plant accident is just one example of poor conditions impacting young workers and resulting in wrongful death. According to JAMA, child labor incidents cause serious injuries to children and adolescents each year in the U.S. These account for more than 30,000 injuries, 20,000 compensation claims, thousands of cases of permanent disability, and more than 100 deaths each year, JAMA reports.
Reported injuries include amputations, burns, scalds, scalpings, fractures, eye loss, and electrocutions. In addition, working children are exposed to toxins such as benzene (pumping gas), pesticides (lawn care and agriculture), and asbestos (construction and maintenance work). These types of toxic exposures increase the risk of developing conditions such as leukemia, neurologic impairment, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.
As personal injury and employment lawyers for all victims of injuries and workplace violations in California, we strongly believe that child labor is not the answer to the nation’s growing labor shortage. Paying people a living wage, improving job safety and security, and holding employers and corporations accountable for putting profits before people – be they workers or consumers – is the key to achieving economic stability and social well-being. We will do our part by fighting for the rights of workers and those injured by the negligence or wrongdoing of others.