Food & Beverage

Labor Department sues beef jerky maker for firing worker who tried to call 911 after co-worker severed thumb

Lone Star Western's Black Pepper Beef Jerky

What a "jerk"!

The U.S. Labor Department sued a beef jerky company and its owner over allegations that the owner fired a worker for trying to call 911 when a co-worker of hers cut off part of his thumb in a workplace accident.

John Bachman, owner of Lone Star Western Beef, also is accused in the federal court complaint of doing "little to clean or sanitize the areas where [the injured worker's] blood had spurted all over his work area and on the floor and sink in the processing area."

Bachman threw out only the meat that the worker was cutting during the accident, but did not discard "other meat present in the area" where he bled, the complaint alleges.

Lone Star Western Beef's website indicates the company has facilities in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

"Lone Star has broken the mold when it comes to beef jerky!" the website proclaims. "This ain't no wimpy city slicker beef jerky!"

The incident at the center of the lawsuit — which seeks back wages and punitive damages for the terminated worker — occurred July 7, 2014, in Lone Star's plant in Fairmont, West Virginia.

The complaint says that food processor Michele Butler-Savage that morning heard her co-worker Chris Crane say he had cut his finger, and saw "blood running down" his hand and arm.

Crane had severed part of his thumb while operating a band saw used to cut beef, and Butler-Savage "believed that he sustained a serious injury," the complaint says.

Butler-Savage helped Crane, putting his hand under cold water and putting a paper towel over his hand, while another worker went to get Bachman.

When Bachman arrived of the accident, Butler-Savage had dialed 911, the complaint says. But before the call was connected "Bachman told Buter-Savage not to call 911 and instructed her to hang up the phone," according to the suit.

When she told Bachman that Crane needed an ambulance, "Bachman responded that he would decide whether to call an ambulance and instructed Butler-Savage to get back to work."

Bachman then "collected the severed piece of Crane's thumb" and had a supervisor drive Crane to an urgent clinic, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of West Virginia.

That clinic then transferred Crane, via ambulance, to a hospital emergency room, but doctors there were unable to reattach the severed part to his thumb, according to the suit.

Later that day, Butler-Savage spoke to an inspector from the U.S. Agriculture Department and voiced "concerns about the accident, the cleanup," as well as "the lack of appropriate personal protective equipment," the complaint said. She "also told the inspector that she had tried to call 911."

Two days later, on July 9, "Bachman fired Savage," the complaint said.

"Bachman initially told Butler-Savage that production was slow, but further complained that he had lawsuits pending against him, that there were too many government rules to follow, and that the government always had its hand in his business," the complaint alleges.

Messages left by CNBC at the company's phone number and email address seeking comment from Lone Star and Bachman were not immediately returned.

Labor Department records show that Lone Star Western Beef was cited for multiple "serious" violations of workplace regulations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in November 2013. One of those violations related to "medical services and first aid," and the others related to hazard communications and other rules.

Those violations, which initially led to $4,800 in penalties, were later settled, with Lone Star Western Beef agreeing to pay $2,400. A balance of $1,146.01 from the company was sent to debt collections after OSHA determined it was uncollectable, according to the agency.

In a statement about the new lawsuit, an OSHA official said, "Lone Star Western Beef punished an employee for seeking emergency medical care for a seriously injured co-worker."

"Her efforts were protected under the [federal Occupational Safety and Health Act] and showed basic human decency," said Richard Mendelson, regional administrator of OSHA, which is a division of the Labor Department.

"No worker should have to fear retaliation from their employer for calling 911 in an emergency, or taking other action to report a workplace safety or health incident," said Mendelson.

OSHA received a complaint from Butler-Savage against Lone Star Western Beef and Bachman a day after she was fired. The agency's investigation later found that the company "violated the anti-discrimination provision" of the OSHA law by firing Butler-Savage for trying to call 911, according to Mendelson's office.