"Another day in paradise!" A woman said that to me with a broad smile, as we walked into work at Border Foods in Deming, the largest green-chile processing plant anywhere. She meant it ironically, of course.
The first thing that impresses you as you walk in the door is the intense, bitter smell of jalapeno chiles. Even after being filtered through the entire cafeteria, which is the first room, it's enough to make you cough and get a scratchy throat. The heat is often insufferable. The noise of the machines can sometimes cause partial hearing loss.
But it's not just uncomfortable; it's also not very safe.
The danger level is hardly comparable to the slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants in Kansas, Colorado or other states where Border Foods' workers sometimes go in the winter to work. There the record of accidents is horrific. People fall into meat grinders, get an arm or even head cut off at a rate more than any other industry in the US. I've heard these stories from the workers themselves.
But during the writing of this article, I ran into a guy I know who had the tip of his finger cut off at Border Foods. At the 16 de septiembre celebration in Palomas last fall I met a man who had lost a finger there. A few years ago a woman had part of her arm amputated after an accident. I also know a couple of men who say they've had operations because of the effects of the jalapeno brine on their lungs. And there are other cases.
Some of the work areas at Border Foods are really pretty pleasant, especially those outside when the temperature is moderate. It's quieter and it's less smelly. There's even one chile-sorting line that's up on a catwalk where you can see the Tres Hermanas in Columbus. The workers call it the <i>periquera</i>, or parrot roost. I love to work there.
One of the worst places is the jalapeno packing section, where the brine pervades the air. A woman told me she vomited the first time she worked there. Another woman fainted away on the floor during clean-up time, coincidentally when we were waiting for a safety meeting that never happened.
During clean-up time, you find yourself sweeping or shoveling under a forest of conveyor belts and chutes that occasionally drip boiling-hot chile juice on your back. You slog through piles of wet jalapenos and water that soaks through your shoes and can make you slip and fall, and through steam that fogs your safety lenses and makes it hard to see. I remarked to a woman there once, "This is like purgatory," and she nodded at me with her big dark eyes.
But the most important accident, and one that jarred people awake, was the death of a man named Juan Cordero a year and a half ago. He was in the wrong place when a huge metal basket landed on him. It was the only fatal accident at Border Foods in its over 20-year history.
I wouldn't say workers were quick to blame Border Foods for this accident. But when I asked people, "Do you think people here are concerned about your safety or comfort?" the answer was typically "Na-aah." (They say na-aah in Spanish, too.)
Cordero, whose name means "lamb" (you can take that wherever you want), had been working there only four days.
Even workers who've been there a while are often yanked quickly from one job and put in another, with very little training. Constance Wanamaker of Texas Rural Legal Aid in El Paso says this kind of problem is a safety issue at meat-packing plants, too.
Since Cordero's passing, Border Foods has begun to have safety meetings with employees. But it's hard to understand why the current safety manager, Jordan Larson, insists all employees had weekly meetings in 2004 as well. "We have lists of names," he says. Some of the workers I talked to said they've had a few meetings, others say they've had regular weekly meetings, and others say they had none. I worked in January and February last year, and we may have had a meeting or two, no more.
But at least Border Foods is making progress. There are bilingual warning signs up in some places. A young woman I spoke to feels there is more care being shown by supervisors. There's also a suggestion box.
Larson says that very soon there is going to be an even greater emphasis on safety, and a new safety manager. The accident level at Border Foods is about average for US food processing plants, he says, and will improve.
It sounds good, but I hope they realize that the well-intentioned efforts they make at the top aren't always going to reach the bottom. OSHA may be doing more inspections at the plant, but I've been there when a supervisor cheerfully reminded us to wear our earplugs and gloves and so forth because some <i>"inspectores"</i> were coming. Good intentions have many layers of inertia to pass through before they get to the ground floor.
And officialdom is not always the best source of information. I have talked to the Wage and Hour Division at the Department of Labor, who spend weeks each year doing inspections in the chile and onion fields. They have a rather phenomenal capacity to underestimate the amount of sub-minimum wages fieldworkers get.
Safety is not yet an old issue at Border Foods. Last September 12 employees were brought to the Deming hospital (two kept overnight) for effects of ammonia that leaked into the air. In January a woman got seriously tangled up in a machine and sent to a hospital in El Paso.
I hope the new safety manager makes changes, quickly. With the money Border Foods makes, they could become a model for the industry.
Marjorie Lily writes the Borderlines column from Deming.