When giant Dole Food Co. got one of its plants into California’s Voluntary Protection Program, the company boasted that it was the first produce firm to earn the recognition, which is reserved for operations with stellar workplace safety records.

But unknown outside of the company, just as Dole was being honored, its officials were grappling with a potential scandal involving the concealing of worker injury claims.

The internal uproar stemmed from a complaint by a personnel manager about an alleged cover-up of injuries among lettuce workers. An outside lawyer hired by Dole to investigate confirmed wrongdoing. His conclusion: Some supervisors and foremen in the lettuce division indeed had failed “to timely and accurately report claimed industrial accidents.”

The lawyer, Peter Nelson, gave his findings in a letter in June, 2006—the same month the Dole Fresh Vegetables plant in Soledad, a separate company operation, was welcomed into the VPP. Nelson said he had reviewed 16 alleged injury cases with “a common denominator” of supervisors delaying or failing to file injury reports.

In some cases, the letter said, supervisors failed to refer “allegedly injured workers to appropriate industrial clinics for evaluation and treatment.”  Instead, some workers said, “supervisors and forepersons have told them to treat in Mexico on a personal basis with physicians and/or unlicensed ‘sobadors’ [massage therapists] for industrial injuries.”

The letter cited the case of a worker who attributed a rash to pesticide exposure, but was questioned by her foreman about what she had eaten. A week later, it said, the worker’s husband had to rush her to the hospital with a life-threatening illness of uncertain cause. At that point, the letter said, the foreman filed a belated injury report stating that the employee’s symptoms began at home while she was bathing.

Nelson also cited cases of supervisors seeking undue influence on medical providers—once, to get a doctor to change a diagnosis and return a worker to full duties. Nelson noted that Dole had tied bonuses for salaried employees to holding down injury rates, thereby creating incentives for hiding accidents. Deeming an injury too minor to report “tends to benefit supervisors and forepersons in bonus calculations,” the letter said.

The letter later surfaced in a court case and was posted on the website of KCET-TV’s SoCal Connected. Dole issued a statement saying the company had investigated Nelson’s findings and found four instances of misconduct, leading company officials to fire a supervisor and suspend a foreman they deemed responsible.

The matter came up in a wrongful termination case filed by Joanne Haworth, the human resources official who had complained about the alleged cover-up of accidents and claimed she was fired for doing so. Haworth had secretly provided Nelson’s letter and a giant trove of company documents to Cal/OSHA–something Dole only discovered through depositions taken in her case. In court papers, Haworth said she had acted “because my employer was doing some wrong things and people were being hurt.”

Dole demanded that Cal/OSHA return the documents, which the company considered stolen, and the agency complied. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge disqualified Haworth’s lawyer on grounds he had acted unethically by failing to return the documents and using them in the case. Dole, which denied it fired Haworth for her whistleblowing, settled the case in late 2009.

The alleged record-keeping violations, a few years old when they came to Cal/OSHA’s attention, weren’t investigated. However, acting on a separate complaint, the agency in 2008 inspected Dole’s VPP site—the Soledad plant where hundreds of workers clean and bag fresh vegetables.

Dole was cited for failing to report at least 11 injuries at the plant over a 14-month period.

Cal/OSHA found that at the Soledad plant, too, Dole offered supervisors and workers safety incentives that could encourage underreporting of injuries, including prizes and cash for long injury-free periods.

Dole appealed the citations, contending the 11 incidents were so minor there was no requirement to log them as injuries. Dole also argued that Cal/OSHA lacked jurisdiction because VPP status made it exempt from inspections. In fact, VPP members are exempt from planned, or “programmed’’ inspections but not those triggered by complaints.

The case was settled in May, 2010, when Cal/OSHA agreed to dismiss some of the citations and lower the penalties to $1,920.

By then, the Soledad plant had left the VPP under somewhat murky circumstances.

Iraj Pourmehraban, program manager at Cal/OSHA, said Dole had not been kicked out–that its membership lapsed after three years when it failed to complete the renewal process.

Dole said in a statement that it decided not to seek renewal “because we felt that the VPP had yet to reach a needed level of maturity in terms of the development of its policies, procedures and standards…As to worker safety and health itself, Dole maintains its full commitment.”