Fuming Workers

Aug. 9, 2022

Teargassing your own employees is not a long-term viable strategy.

One of my more memorable plant tours was of a facility that processed frozen onion rings. Before you freeze them, you have to slice them, and that’s what I remember. Walking into the area where the onions were sliced was like walking into a cloud of tear gas.

My eyes and sinuses were on fire. There were Kleenex boxes everywhere – wherever you stood, there was one in reach. The plant manager told me that many of the employees assigned to the slicing area didn’t take any breaks, even for lunch, because they didn’t want to have to get used to the onion fumes all over again.

I thought of that place when I came across this item about a worker at Huy Fong Foods – the maker of those bottles of bright-red sriracha sauce with the rooster logo – getting a verdict of more than a million dollars due to allegedly intolerable conditions at Huy Fong’s plant in Irwindale, Calif.

According to Juan Carlos Bravo’s lawsuit, the problems started when Huy Fong made changes to its ventilation system in response to odor complaints from the surrounding community. I don’t know exactly what they did, but whatever it was, it apparently directed enough of the fumes from the chili peppers used for sriracha indoors so that they sent the plaintiff into asthma attacks.

That wasn’t enough to justify a million-dollar verdict, but there was more: Supervisors refused to transfer him away from cleaning the drains that were triggering his asthma and wouldn’t even let him wear a mask, according to the suit.

I don’t know what’s going to happen to that verdict on appeal, but it should serve as a good lesson. Ensuring the safety of workers isn’t just a matter of making sure they don’t fall into vats or risk electric shocks. Fumes that are intolerable to the community at large are liable to be just as intolerable when directed inwards.

This isn’t a matter of coddling workers. For every one who files a lawsuit, there are likely to be dozens who are suffering right alongside, with predictable effects on their efficiency and morale. At a time when attracting workers is the No. 1 worry across the industry, eliminating intolerable working conditions should be a No. 1 priority.


Help choose the most sustainable food or beverage plant of the past year or two in Food Processing's Green Plant of the Year poll. This year, we have three nominees: Flowers Foods' Lynchburg, Va., bakery; Tyson Foods' Joslin, Ill., beef complex; and Vital Farms' egg facility in Springfield, Mo. Read their persuasive essays and vote for your fave through Aug. 29. The plant with the most votes wins and will be profiled in our October issue.

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