An investigation by theCharlotte Observerhas found that weak enforcement, minimal fines and dwindling inspections allow poultry processors to ignore hazards that can kill and injure workers.

Among the newspaper's findings in a six-part series on the dangers of the poultry-producing industry:

• Workplace safety inspections at poultry plants have dropped to their lowest point in 15 years. The industry has kept steady employment over that time and has leaned heavily on illegal immigrants to fill jobs.

• Fines for serious violations — including conditions that could cause deaths and disabling injuries — are usually cut by more than half to an average of about $1,100.

• It has been a decade since OSHA fined a poultry processor for hazards likely to cause carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis and other musculoskeletal disorders common to the industry.

• The federal government has made it easier for companies to hide those musculoskeletal disorders. In 2002, regulators lifted a recordkeeping requirement that required companies to identify injuries associated with repetitive trauma. Workplace safety experts say letting companies lump those injuries with others on safety logs made them easier to hide.

Officials with the OSHA say poultry plants are safer than ever, pointing to a decade of declining injury rates, according to theObserver. The agency cites enforcement programs and a growing recognition among industry leaders that reducing injuries is good for business.

But theObserverfound that the official injury statistics aren't accurate and that the industry is more dangerous than its reports to regulators suggest. Current and former OSHA officials say the agency has made it easier for companies to hide injuries, and has all but abandoned its mission to protect workers.

Unlike other manufacturers, which have largely automated their plants, poultry processors still depend heavily on manual labor. Most line workers are immigrants, and many are afraid to complain about injuries for fear of being fired or deported.

"It's really a national tragedy that OSHA is so invisible, so silent these days," said Dr. Michael Silverstein, who served as policy director for OSHA from 1993 to 1995. "I think OSHA is not a factor in many companies' decision-making. Their presence is neither seen nor felt."