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A 16-year-old died while working at a poultry plant in Mississippi

Duvan Robert Tomas Perez, 16, was a sanitation worker at the Mar-Jac Poultry plant in Hattiesburg, Miss. A statement from the plant says Perez died after he became entangled in a machine he was cleaning.
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Duvan Robert Tomas Perez, 16, was a sanitation worker at the Mar-Jac Poultry plant in Hattiesburg, Miss. A statement from the plant says Perez died after he became entangled in a machine he was cleaning.

A teenager died while working underage at a Mississippi poultry plant last week, the third accidental death at the facility in less than three years.

Sixteen-year-old Duvan Robert Tomas Perez died while on the job at the Mar-Jac Poultry plant in Hattiesburg, Miss., last Friday. Forrest County Deputy Coroner Lisa Klem confirmed the where and when of Perez's death, but said she couldn't release specific details at the request of the family.

In a press release obtained by NPR, Mar-Jac Poultry said that a sanitation employee at the plant suffered a fatal injury when he "became entangled" in the one of the machines he was cleaning. According to the statement, the plant immediately notified the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and an investigation was launched with the company's full cooperation.

The statement did not mention Perez by name.

Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity (IAJE) spokesperson Jess Manrriquez told NPR that Perez and his family are indigenous Guatemalans who immigrated approximately six years ago.

"Workers are put in these conditions that are truly deplorable," Manrriquez said. "We've been hearing from folks on the ground that there is a lot of child labor that is happening at that poultry plant, so there's a lot that needs to be investigated. But right now, we just want to help the family through this process."

Lorena Quiroz, IAJE executive director, said in a written statement that the organization is asking OSHA and the Labor Department to conduct a statewide investigation to put an end to child labor and hazardous working conditions.

NPR reached out to OSHA for comment, but those calls went unreturned before publication.

Perez, who was going into the ninth grade, was too young to legally work at the plant, according to the Labor Department. Federal law requires workers to be at least 18 to work in meatpacking facilities due to the inherent dangers of the occupation.

Mar-Jac acknowledged in its statement that the employee was under 18 and never should have been hired.

"Mar-Jac MS would never knowingly put any employee, and certainly not a minor, in harm's way," the statement reads. "But it appears, at this point in the investigation, that this individual's age and identity were misrepresented on the paperwork."

The company said it's conducting a thorough audit with staffing companies used to bring on employees to ensure an incident like this "never happens again."

This was the third death at the Mar-Jac plant in less than three years. According to an open OSHA case, a staff member died as a result of "horse play" in December 2020. The Associated Press reported at the time that Joel Velasco Toto, 33, died from "abdominal and pelvic trauma caused by a compressed air injury."

Less than seven months later, Mississippi's WDAM 7 reported that 28-year-old Bobby Butler died in an accident involving heavy machinery in May 2021.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dustin Jones
Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.
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