KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Considering that many of the 500,000 workers in the US meat and poultry industry work in potentially dangerous, harsh-environment packing and processing facilities, industry has much to be proud of when it comes to its ever-improving worker-safety record. Incidence of injuries and illnesses reported in the US meat industry for 2013 (the most recent year for which data is available) are the lowest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) began recording this data in the early 1970s, relays the North American Meat Institute (NAMI).

Chart showing rates of injury and illness cases per 100 full-time workers
Work safety has steadily improved in the meat and poultry industry.

During the last 20 years, injury/illness rates in the US meat industry have improved by almost 80 percent, thanks to efforts taken to enhance workplace safety. Since all injuries and illnesses are not alike, the BLS provides separate data to categorize the seriousness of injuries and illnesses it records, NAMI explains. These include the Total Incidents (recordable) rate and the Lost Workday Case rate. Recordables are all incidents “recorded” on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) log; those requiring medical attention beyond normal first aid. Lost Workdays are a subset of Recordables, and can happen under two circumstances — an injury serious enough to require at least one day away from work or an injury requiring restricted job activity. Restricted activity can include shortened hours, a temporary job change or transfer, restriction from certain job duties or a combination of all three.

Chart showing combined rate of injury and illness cases per 100 full-time workers
Both total-incidents rate and lost-workday case rate currently are at all-time industry lows.

In the BLS Animal Slaughter and Processing subgroup — which includes meat-packing, meat-processing and the poultry-processing sectors — 2013 data reports 5.7 injury occurrences per 100 full-time workers per year, which is a reduction of 9.5 percent from 2012 results. More-serious injuries requiring lost work days decreased from the 2012 rate of 4.3 to 3.9 in 2013 — down 9.3 percent. Both the total-incidents rate and the more-severe lost-workday case rate currently are at all-time industry lows, which is great news.

Much of this improvement in recent years can be traced to two efforts initiated by the meat industry in 1990, NAMI states:

• The US meat industry, together with OSHA and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union, developed Voluntary Ergonomic Guidelines for the meat-packing industry. Since in place, results include significantly reduced levels of injuries and illnesses; ongoing efforts to eliminate ergonomic risks and hazards in the workplace; programs and process improvements tailored to individual plant situations; and the creation of new tools, equipment, methods and production processes.

• The NAMI board of directors made workplace safety a non-competitive issue and began encouraging companies to share information on safety practices. This decision helped the NAMI Worker Safety Committee to pursue more safety improvements, including the annual North American Meat Industry Foundation (NAMIF) Conference on Worker Safety and Human Resources. Results of these initiatives have been quite positive.

Over the years, plant managers have repeatedly said one injury or death at any of their facilities is one too many, but accidents still happen. In early February, a contract cleaning company employee died after falling into a piece of machinery at a Tyson Foods Inc. poultry plant in Shelbyville. James Currier, 38, of Shelbyville was cleaning and sanitizing equipment at the plant when the accident happened.
Later that month, a man was hospitalized after getting his arm caught in a grinder at a JTM Foods plant in Harrison, Ohio. The unidentified man was taken to the Univ. of Cincinnati Medical Center. He reportedly lost that arm. Investigators looked into the accident.

Last October, another contract cleaning company employee was injured at a Tyson Foods facility in southwest Omaha, Neb. The accident occurred around 2:45 am. He was hospitalized with critical injuries after his hand was caught in a chain. Emergency crews spent almost 30 minutes to extract the man. The unidentified worker was taken to CHI Health Creighton Univ. Medical Center.

A Pilgrim's Pride employee died last August after being electrocuted while on the job at the company’s Nacogdoches, Texas plant. The accident happened around 3:22 a.m. on Aug. 4. Bobby Joe Beall, 50, was exposed to an electric shock while working on machinery. He was taken to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead.

These are just several horrible incidents that have occurred during the past year or so and my heart goes out to the victims, their families, friends and co-workers. Why some of these accidents happened may never be known. Many occurred during the cleaning/sanitation shift. Perhaps rules should be instituted that no one can work alone in an area of the plant or on a piece of equipment. And having worked nights several times in my life, I can testify I was dragging sometimes when I arrived at work because I did too much during the day. It’s human nature.

During past plant visits, I’ve seen workers run on slippery floors and even catwalks; hands darting onto fast-moving lines to remove packaging and product debris; people walking in front of moving lift-trucks; meat-cutters taking their eyes off cutting to view visitors, and more.

Plant workers must always be alert and stay focused. One slip-up can result in the loss of a limb or life — and it will happen in a flash. Once the damage is done, there’s no reversing it.