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How can Workers at Meat and Poultry Plants Get Injured?

Meat and Poultry Plants

Meat and poultry processing plants involve a variety of tasks, from slaughter to packaging. Many aspects of the work are inherently dangerous. Although each phase has distinct hazards, one recurrent theme is speed.  The speed at which the various stages of meat processing are performed is correlated with the frequency of injuries.  As the speed increases, so too does the risk of getting seriously injured. 

What is Ergonomics?

Ergonomics is the study of human factors or how a person’s body interacts with the environment.  Ergonomic stressors are conditions that are likely to cause or increase the incidents of discomfort and/or injury.  Three characteristics are important when examining a workstation for ergonomic stressors:

  • Force required to complete a task
  • Awkward or static postures adopted to perform a task
  • Repetitiveness of a task

Activities including lifting heavy items, reaching overhead, pushing and pulling heavy loads, working in awkward body positions, and performing the same or similar tasks repeatedly are all ergonomic stressors associated with musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). 

A variety of MSD injuries and illnesses can occur from repeated use of overexertion, including:

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), which is an injury to the nerves of the wrist
  • Tendinitis
  • Rotator cuff injury, which is an injury to the shoulder
  • Epicondylitis, which is damage to the elbow
  • Trigger finger
  • Muscle strains
  • Lower back injuries

What Workplace Hazards and Ergonomic Stressors are Present in Meat Processing?

Workplace hazards must be recognized, evaluated, and controlled adequately to provide a safe and healthful working environment.  Meat processing includes many tasks that pose recognized hazards and ergonomic stressors.  Some examples include:

  • Preparing animals for slaughter such as stunning or severing the jugular vein
  • Removing outer layers of skin or feathers
  • Lifting and sawing, splitting or scribing carcasses into smaller pieces
  • Cutting carcasses to eviscerate and trim prior to butchering
  • Breathing potentially hazardous chemicals used to prevent bacterial growth on meat
  • Butchering carcasses into component parts and culling waste products
  • Processing meat for packaging such as deboning or grinding
  • Using ovens or vats to cook food
  • Maintaining mechanized equipment involved in processing
  • Stocking production lines with adequate supplies
  • Sanitizing workstations and equipment to prevent contamination of surfaces
  • Removing and repairing malfunctioning equipment from a production line

MSDs are common among processing plant workers.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have studied ergonomic related injuries in processing plants and have identified five ergonomics-related risk factors that can lead to increased rates of MSDs in processing plants.  They include:

  • Frequency or repetition. Performing the same motion or series of motions continually or with great frequency.
  • Forceful exertion. The degree of force needed to perform a demanding task such as hanging/rehanging carcasses or pulling skin.
  • Awkward and static postures. Holding positions that place stress on the body such as reaching overhead, kneeling, leaning over a worktable, twisting while lifting.
  • Vibration. Using vibrating hand-held power tools.
  • Cold temperatures. When combined with any of the above risk factors.

The slaughter process can involve moving heavy carcasses and having to hold awkward positions.  Preparing and butchering the carcasses involve different but similar challenges.  It is not surprising that processing plant workers who experience one or more of these significant ergonomic stressors are prone to experiencing MSDs, including damage to the nerves, tendons, muscles, as well as supporting structures of the hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck, and low back. 

A number of conditions at meat processing plants can exacerbate the hazards and increase the risk of injuries.  Many meat processing tasks are performed in closely spaced workstations and while a conveyor moves the meat along a conveyor belt.  Examples of conditions that exacerbate existing workplace hazards include:

  • Awkwardly designed workstations, which increase ergonomic stressors
  • Poor lighting, which limits visibility and increases the risk of lacerations from cutting tools
  • Crowded work areas, which risk injury from workers at nearby stations using sharp instruments
  • Poor ventilation, which fails to adequately remove airborne chemicals and biological droplets

Workers have also been injured or made ill on the job by inhaling airborne pathogenic bacteria that can be present in meat.  Recently, workers in meat processing plants have experienced outbreaks of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) during the pandemic. Adequate air flow, air filtration, and properly fitting respirators are all precautions to take to minimize risk of exposure to these airborne hazards. 

Is It Possible to Avoid MSD Injuries at Processing Plants?

There are approaches that can be taken to reduce the incidence of MSDs in processing plants.

Ergonomic solutions for poultry processing include engineering changes to workstations and equipment, administrative actions, safer work practices, and personal protective equipment (PPE). 

OSHA requires employers to record and track workplace injuries.  Examining these records and investigation injuries that are reported is helpful in identifying and rectifying workplace hazards.  Among the efforts employers should take to improve workplace safety are:

  • Ensuring knives and scissors are sharp
  • Training in techniques involving knives, scissors, and special tools
  • Providing appropriate PPE such as gloves and face shields
  • Training in proper lifting techniques and use of lifting assistive devices
  • Ergonomically designed workstations to reduce awkward postures that may be adjustable to accommodate different size employees
  • Administrative controls such as rotating assignment of processing jobs to reduce repetitions
  • Surveillance programs to review workplace injuries and address any deficiencies in the precautions mentioned above.

See OSHA’s publication for further details on recommendations:  OSHA3213.pdf

Are Regulatory Agencies Part of the Problem?

OSHA does not have a specific standard to regulate assembly line speeds.  Accordingly, the agency has limited enforcement authority to protect workers from MSD injuries caused by highly repetitive actions in this industry.  Yet, as repetitive motions are increased, so is wear and tear on the body, and so are injuries. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture – Food Safety and Inspection Service oversees food safety and regulates meat processing.  Despite the known risk of harm that arises from increased processing line speeds, the agency recently gave a green light to hog processing plants to increase line speed and is poised to do the same for poultry processing.  At the same time, it has reduced oversight of meat processing plants by requiring fewer inspectors be onsite to monitor whether adequate public health precautions are in place to protect the integrity of the food supply.  The prospect of eliminating any limits to processing line speed has also been discussed. 

The National Employment Law Project, a non-profit organization that researches workers’ issues and advocates for policy reforms, recently found that three meat processing companies,  Cargill, Tyson, and Pilgrim’s Pride, had among the highest frequency of severe workplace injuries in the United States. Further, processing plants often discourage reporting of workplace injuries by using a point system that rewards those with fewer sick days, essentially incentivizing not reporting workplace injuries and working while injured.  Some workers fear retaliation from their employers if they report injuries.

What Should I Do if I Get Hurt at Work?

Employees are provided with insurance through Workers’ Compensation programs in every state.  To qualify for the benefits, employees must report workplace injuries to their employers and have evidence of the injury and any necessary medical treatment. 

Mount Holly Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at Kotlar, Hernandez & Cohen, LLC Assist Injured Workers

If you have been injured at work and require medical attention, it is important to know how to seek benefits and what recordkeeping and procedural steps are necessary.  It is also important to understand that employers are not supposed to retaliate against an employee for reporting a workplace injury or making a claim for Workers’ Compensation.  The Mount Holly Workers’ Compensation lawyers at Kotlar, Hernandez & Cohen, LLC can help you understand the rules for eligibility and support your rights to collect the benefits you deserve. Call us at 856-751-7676 or contact us online for a free consultation. Our offices are in Mount Laurel, Cherry Hill, Trenton, and Vineland, New Jersey; and Trevose, Pennsylvania. We serve clients throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

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