On May 7, Robert McLaughlin broke his leg working at Hickman’s egg factory in Arlington.
A cart weighing several hundred pounds came loose and pushed him off a trailer that was six feet off the ground, said McLaughlin, who is incarcerated in Lewis prison in Buckeye and spoke to Phoenix New Times by phone.
He is among hundreds of inmates who work for Hickman’s, one of the biggest egg producers in the Southwest, through Arizona Correctional Industries, a division of the Department of Corrections that sells prison labor.
McLaughlin’s fractured leg is among a growing number of life-altering injuries reported by inmates working at Hickman’s, which has received scant oversight from Arizona's occupational safety agency, records show. Meanwhile, Hickman's maintains that it provides adequate safety training and that injuries are simply part of the job.
Last week, another inmate, Michael Gerhart, filed suit in Maricopa County Superior Court against Hickman’s and the state of Arizona after his left hand was caught in a machine that, his lawsuit claimed, had “no safety mechanism, guard, or emergency shut-off.”
Gerhart had been replacing a belt on that machinery in December, when a co-worker turned on the machine without warning, the complaint states. Gerhart’s hand was sucked in and crushed. The only way to get his hand out was to put the machine into reverse.
Instead of being taken straight to the hospital, Gerhart was taken back to Lewis Prison, where he is serving time for drug-related charges, including one year for a marijuana violation. According to his lawsuit, Gerhart has lost function in his hand and fingers. He is alleging that Hickman’s was negligent by failing to train its workers “on the safe and proper way to use machinery.”
Last month, New Times reported on the case of Mary Stinson, who is also suing Hickman’s after losing part of a finger to a drill-like auger while fixing a feeder there.
She told New Times that she still cannot bend her finger, nine months after the injury.
In response to that story, the Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health said it planned to conduct an inspection of Hickman’s. Spokesperson Trevor Lakey said the inspection is ongoing but that he could not offer a specific timeline for its completion.
In general, inspections take a while, he said. "We go out to a site," Lakey added. "We'll inspect an array of different things."
ADOSH has no injury or fatality reports from Hickman's on file, Lakey confirmed, and a public records request to the agency produced no documentation of safety investigations, inspections, or complaints pertaining to Hickman's Family Farm over the past five years.
A federal database that should contain records of state inspections had no records for Hickman's over the same time period.
After McLaughlin’s fall, he was taken to a hospital, where doctors attached an external bar from his femur to his tibia, he said. He later went through surgery to reconstruct the tibia and received just one session of physical therapy.
Five months after the accident, his leg has not healed properly, McLaughlin said.
“It’s deformed now,” he said. “Rather than being straight like it normally was, it bows in.” This new conformation causes his hips and ankle to hurt, he added.
An incident report from ADC, written by a lieutenant and shared with New Times by the department, confirmed that McLaughlin had indeed been injured on May 7 at Hickman’s, but it blamed McLaughlin for the injury.
“He reportedly jumped from a trailer and injured his knee,” the report said. The crew boss called 911, and McLaughlin was quickly taken to Abrazo West Medical Campus, it added.
McLaughlin offered a different version of events.
He worked in the “special projects” department, doing tasks including “depop” — killing chickens. The afternoon of May 7, he had a depop to prep for, and because the chickens had a virus, or so he was told, he was given plastic booties to wear over his plastic work boots.
That afternoon, his boss told him to grab two mortality carts, which McLaughlin believed weighed at least 400 pounds, from a nearby semi-trailer, he said.
Then, the boss “went to get something and left me alone,” McLaughlin recalled.
He staged the carts about three feet from the edge of the trailer so he could use a loading machine to move them. McLaughlin still couldn’t understand what happened, but somehow, as he stood on the trailer, six feet off the ground, one of them came loose.
“It just came behind me and pushed me out,” he said. With the plastic booties over his boots, he had no traction.
The cart crashed off the trailer onto the loading machine, while McLaughlin landed on the ground and screamed.
McLaughlin began working at Hickman’s in June 2018, he said. He got his forklift certification through the company, but said he received little formal training otherwise.
Hickman's has disputed previous claims by inmates that they receive little training for their jobs.
“The only safety training we’d get was from a peer, another inmate,” McLaughlin said.
Working at Hickman’s was also fraught with safety issues, he said. For example, while welding or grinding – a task he said he did frequently – inmates wore flammable biohazard suits, he said.
In the past, he had transported the heavy carts “a few times” before, McLaughlin said, but always with at least one other person there to help stage the carts while he worked the loading machine.
McLaughlin said he sought the job at Hickman’s so he could be transferred to Lewis Prison, where inmates who work at Hickman’s are housed. He was previously incarcerated at the prison in Yuma, he said, and being in Buckeye brought him closer to his children, who live in the Valley.
He said he worried that his injury would hurt his ability to return to his job as a flooring contractor, a trade he’d done for 28 years prior to being incarcerated. He is nearing the end of a two-and-a-half year sentence for prostitution-related charges, and is scheduled for release in October 2020.
“This is going to hinder me from being able to do my job when I get out,” McLaughlin said. "I just don’t want this kind of stuff happening to someone else.”
In a September interview with New Times, Hickman’s CFO Jim Manos rejected the idea that inmates were poorly trained, even as he dismissed injuries as “just part of doing business.”
Manos said that about two years ago, Hickman’s began holding morning safety meetings that went over what to do, and what not to do, to safely handle equipment around the factory.
He said the 10-minute training sessions entail watching videos and demonstrations on equipment. Afterward, workers have to take a test on what they’ve learned, he added. He produced a sign-in sheet from an auger training the day before Mary Stinson’s injury — a sign-in sheet that included Stinson’s signature.
Asked whether the training sessions were sufficient, Manos said, “I don’t know what that would mean.”
He suggested explicitly that when workers are injured, they likely have themselves to blame.
”You can’t stop people from doing things that are going to harm them, if that’s what they want to do,” he said.
According to Manos, 80 of its 600 civilian employees are ex-inmates, and on any given day, 200 of its workers are inmates, from “a pool of 300 that we use.”
In response to questions from New Times about training sessions that Gerhart or McLaughlin might have attended, Manos wrote in an email, "We have sign off sheets from well over a hundred morning safety meetings [Gerhart] attended ... He watched the same videos."
As for McLaughlin, Manos said he hadn't done any research on him, but that he was nevertheless sure that McLaughlin "attended daily safety meetings like every other inmate worker."
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