Imagine a workplace in your town where one of every three employees had the same work-related illness. Better yet, imagine that it was one in three employees in your own workplace. That’d be pretty shocking, right?
Well, that’s what the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found among 191 workers at Amick Farms’ poultry processing plant in Hurlock, MD. Thirty-four percent had carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). Equally striking, a whopping 76 percent of the workers in the study had evidence of nerve damage in their hands and wrists. The findings of this NIOSH “Health Hazard Evaluation” were released today.
The Amick Farms plant processes about 177,000 chickens per day with a workforce of 877 employees in production jobs. The workers, who are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 27, typically work 8-hour shifts and are given a 36-minute lunch break and another 12-minute break. The incessant line speed and repetitive motion of the cutting tasks have workers in not just this plant, but throughout the poultry industry, calling their workplaces “houses of pain.”
In a blog post about the Amick Farms’ HHE, the NIOSH researchers note:
“The high prevalence of carpal tunnel syndrome at this plant is not surprising given the literature on the topic as well as past NIOSH HHEs in poultry processing showing a link between carpal tunnel syndrome and levels of exposure to hand repetition and force above recommended limits.”
No, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised by the results. It was around this time last year when NIOSH released another HHE from a different poultry processing plant. This one, from a Pilgrim’s Pride facility in South Carolina, found 42 percent prevalence of CTS among 375 workers on the daytime production shift. 42%, 34%, it’s all bad news for poultry processing workers.
Both of these HHE’s were requested by the firms in order to fulfill a requirement by the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). Poultry companies that wanted to convert to an alternative inspection system called the “Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Inspection Models Project (HIMP)” had to invite NIOSH to conduct an HHE. The alternative system reduces the number of FSIS inspectors and allows the plants to increase production line speeds.
NIOSH’s evaluation at the Amick Farms’ plant involved multiple visits to the facility during 2014. Ninety-six percent of the 199 eligible employees participated. Their average age was 40 years (range: 20–70), with 46% of the workers identifying as Hispanic, 30% identifying as African-American, and 20% identifying as Creole. The workers answered a questionnaire about their work and medical history. Each of them also underwent nerve conduction test (which I hear is downright painful.)
What did NIOSH find?
The agency identified 64 workers (34%) who met its case definition for CTS:
Pain, numbness, burning, tingling in the hands or wrists, occurring more than 3 times or lasting 7 days or longer in the past 12 months; AND marked or shaded the location of their symptoms in the median nerve distribution area on a hand symptom diagram; AND an abnormal median nerve conduction in the affected hand or wrist.
Worse yet, 42% had carpal tunnel in both hands.
The nerve conduction test results were also alarming. Of the 64 workers with CTS, 92% had moderate or severe median mononeuropathy in at least one hand. Among all 191 workers who had nerve conduction tests, the presence of median mononeuropathy was rated as moderate in 49% of the workers and severe in 13%. Even without the sophisticated nerve conduction tests, 110 of the 191 workers reported having symptoms of musculoskeletal injuries. Fifty-eight percent, for example, reported being awakened from sleep in the last 7 days by the symptoms. (At the South Carolina Pilgrim’s Pride plant, 67 percent of workers reported this same problem.)
The NIOSH HHE also included videotaping of numerous job tasks in the plant. The researchers observed workers having to reach above their shoulders to use knife sharpeners (many times per shift) and did not have the ability to adjust platforms to fit their height and the type of work. These sort of work-design failures are key contributors to musculoskeletal injuries. The researchers noted that 59% of the tasks exceeded the recommended limits established by ACGIH for hand activity and force.
Like NIOSH, I’m not surprised by these terrible findings, and I know that poultry workers at these and other plants across the country won’t be surprised either. The poultry industry has been allowed to take a pass and not be held accountable for the injuries sustained by its workers. The companies are not required to fix the conditions that cause these injuries because there are no meaningful federal regulations that require them to do so.
I appreciate the thoughtful time and effort invested by NIOSH in conducting the HHEs in these poultry plants. At some point, however, more studies finding the same result just become an interesting academic exercise. There’s already plenty in the scientific literature about the types and causes of injuries in poultry processing plants. How many more HHEs and studies do policy makers need before they tell the poultry industry enough is enough?