WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – A survey of poultry workers in western North Carolina reveals high rates of injuries, as well as significant differences among poultry companies in numbers of injuries and how workers view company emphasis on safety.
The survey was conducted by researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in collaboration with Centro Latino of Caldwell County, Inc.
“We found high rates of musculoskeletal injuries,” said Sara A. Quandt, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology at the School of Medicine, which is part of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. “Almost half of workers reported pain in their hands or arms during the previous month and one in five of those workers was unable to work for at least a day in the previous year because of the pain.”
The survey was based on a representative sample of Latino workers in six counties in western North Carolina: Alexander, Burke, Caldwell, Surry, Wilkes and Yadkin. The results, not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal, were distributed to community groups in a working paper.
Poultry processing is the largest and fastest growing sector of the meat products industry, according to the authors. In 2002, North Carolina and four other states accounted for 70 percent of all broiler production in the United States. Many of the workers are immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala, according to the authors.
Face-to-face interviews with 200 poultry workers found that 119 workers (60 percent) reported having one or more of these occupational injuries or illnesses in the past month: respiratory, skin, leg/foot, neck/back or arm/hand. Musculoskeletal problems were the most commonly reported work-related injuries. Thirty-six percent of workers surveyed had neck or back pain, and one in three of those workers missed work in the past 12 months because of the pain.
The injuries and illnesses varied by company, but on average exceeded rates that plants reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In 2003, a reported 8.1 of every 100 full-time poultry workers nationwide were injured or made ill. North Carolina reported a 9.4 percent injury and illness rate.
“The reported rates of illness and injuries in the poultry industry are likely to be the tip of the iceberg,” write the authors. “Workers often see the hazards as just part of the job, or they move on to other jobs as they begin to develop symptoms.”
The researchers also found that the prevalence of injuries and illnesses varied among companies. For example, 70 percent of workers at one company said they had an illness or injury during the previous year, compared to less than 30 percent at a second company and less than 10 percent at a third company.
“The differences among the companies are important because, although poultry processing is known to be dangerous work, our findings indicate that companies can take steps to improve safety – which can translate into fewer injuries for their workers,” said Quandt.
The researchers also found that workers at the company with the fewest reported injuries perceived a greater emphasis on workplace safety compared to workers at the other two companies.
The researchers said additional research is needed, including physical exams to confirm self-reported levels of injuries and studies to investigate reasons for reported differences among companies in worker-reported health and safety climate.
The reports’ other recommendations include equal enforcement of existing occupational safety regulations across all poultry processing employers, requiring producers to implement an ergonomics program such as described in OHSA’s 2004 guidelines. The report also recommends that advocacy groups and community agencies should work with poultry processing plants to improve workers’ safety and health.
“These policy changes and research will help to identify ways to reduce the high rates of occupational illnesses and injuries in this vulnerable population,” the authors wrote.
The survey collected data on occupational and psychological health, safety training and the safety climate inside the plants. It was funded by a grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. In addition to Quandt, researchers were Joseph Grzywacz, Ph.D., Michael Coates, M.D., M.S., Antonio Marin, M.A., and Thomas Arcury, Ph.D., all with Wake Forest Baptist; and Bless Burke, M.A., and Lourdes Carrillo, B.S., with Centro Latino.
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Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center is an academic health system comprised of North Carolina Baptist Hospital and Wake Forest University Health Sciences, which operates the university’s School of Medicine. The system comprises 1,187 acute care, psychiatric, rehabilitation and long-term care beds and is consistently ranked as one of “America’s Best Hospitals” by U.S. News & World Report.