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Making the Work Place Safe for Meatpacking Workers

Public Health Community Advisory
by Lina Lander, ScD, Assistant Professor, Department of Epidemiology

The meatpacking industry is one of the largest employers in the United States, employing over 500,000 workers in 2009. This industry is also among the most dangerous. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 6.9 workers per 100 full-time workers were injured in meatpacking facilities, compared to 3.6 workers per 100 full-time workers injured in private industry in 2009.

Working conditions in meatpacking plants have steadily changed since the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act in the early twentieth century. In Nebraska, Governor Michael Johanns issued the “Meatpacking Worker Bill of Rights” in 2000. This bill is a voluntary set of guidelines to recognize workers’ right to work in safe conditions. Unions have been instrumental in their continued advocacy to improve conditions for meatpacking workers.

Meatpacking work is inherently dangerous. The animals are slaughtered, eviscerated, and prepared for refrigeration, after which the chilled carcasses are cut into products and prepared for shipping. Workers typically stand close together as a conveyor with product moves past them. The work tends to be highly repetitive. For example, one worker may remove shoulder bone while another is trimming fat all day. Cumulative trauma disorders occur over time due to repeated usage or injury and may be exacerbated by a cold environment. Lifting of heavy product or boxes is necessary for some tasks.

The fast paced, repetitive work, and use of sharp tools (knives and saws) can result in an injury. Workers typically wear several layers of gloves, including chain-link gloves to prevent lacerations. Such personal protective equipment lowers the risk but does not stop injuries. Slippery floors from pieces of product or water used for washing contribute to slipping and falling. Workers usually wear slip-resistant rain boots, but slips and falls are still common.

Often, only disasters make the news, but not all meatpacking plants are created equal. Every day, conscientious employers work hard to provide safe working conditions. Some workplaces have adjustable platforms that allow a worker to be close to the product and comfortably perform his/her tasks. Automation is implemented to reduce lifting and repetitive tasks. Other examples of improved working conditions include job rotation, where workers perform different tasks during the day, and the use of ergonomically correct tools to prevent awkward postures. Such forward-thinking businesses should be recognized and celebrated so that others can follow their example to make meatpacking as safe as possible.

Researchers at UNMC’s COPH are working with one such forward-thinking business to identify risk factors for lacerations. The research team collected information from almost 300 workers to understand the variation in worker safety. The team found that the risk of laceration injury increased eight-fold when a worker was sharpening tools. The risk increased almost four-fold when the worker was performing an unusual task, had malfunctioning equipment, or was using a different work method to do the job. The researchers are using these findings to work with plants’ safety teams to develop interventions that will prevent laceration injuries.

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