By Jim Niemic
The Canadian pork industry is one of the world’s largest and most respected due to its high-quality product and reputable client service. As one of the leading pork exporters, the Canadian pork industry has seen consolidation into a smaller number of larger slaughterhouses and processing plants, including the very large plants that can process more than one million hogs per year. Advances in pork processing equipment and their consequent increase in line processing speeds have allowed the industry to increase efficiencies and output. But with success comes challenges. It is well known in the industry that higher pork processing line speeds can lead to higher rates of repetitive stress injuries (RSI) among workers if not managed properly with a complete occupational safety program designed and managed by the plant.
In terms of injuries, the farm is a safer work place than the processing plant. The Statistics Canada census showed that only 3.5 per cent of every 100 employees on the hog farm suffered injuries. This is compared to 30 per cent for beef, and 10.3 per cent for dairy. Only poultry and eggs were lower at 1.6 per cent. But, when we move up the chain to the slaughter houses and processors we see that the meat processing industry still has one of the highest injury rates among all manufacturing industries. This reality exists despite the fact that there have been significant advances in the design and implementation of ergonomic occupational health and safety programs designed to reduce the risk of work place injuries. These programs have shown success. Yet, there is plenty of room for improvement by implementing a simple program called pre-injury reporting, or more generally, early symptoms reporting. What is this program and how can it help?
This article will answer these questions by discussing pre-injury reporting in the form of a participatory ergonomic intervention program and recommend certain guidelines to help reduce the risk of repetitive stress injuries at the pork processing plant.
Ergonomic and work safety programs
Some of the most frequent but preventable injuries that occur in the pork processing plant are speed of line related, such as repetitive stress injuries often due to the fast and often pressured work at the line. Repetitive stress injuries include carpel tunnel syndrome and tendonitis. It is estimated that a worker will make more than 20,000 cuts in an eight-hour shift. This large number includes thousands of repeated or similar motions causing elevated rates of this often-debilitating condition. To reduce the risk of these types of injuries, plant management have developed and implemented ergonomic and work safety programs. Professional ergonomic consultants are often called in to train management and develop training programs where the employees are trained on how to perform their job activities in a way that diminish the chances of an injury. These programs do work, yet sometimes their results are not optimized due to employee fears of expressing themselves. Studies have shown that all too many employees are afraid to even mention that they are working in pain at the line and in the process of developing a repetitive stress injury. They are afraid that they might be fired or demoted to another position not to their liking. Thus, they all too often stay at their posts until they get seriously injured and are forced to stop.
This process of degradation from initial symptoms (pain, tingling feeling, heaviness) to a full-fledged serious illness can take anywhere from a few more minutes to a few days of continuing to work with the symptoms. Once seriously injured, the worker may have to be off work for several months doing physiotherapy and other therapies that do not guarantee a return to their original state or workplace. Studies show that this worker would have had a faster and more effective rehabilitation and return to work if they had stopped working at the early symptoms stage and reported the early symptoms to a management that had in place an early symptoms intervention program that incorporated an early diagnosis and treatment start. This concept is supported by OSH of New Zealand, among other occupational health and safety boards. Yet for this program to be effective it is imperative that workers feel motivated and free to report their pre-injury symptoms as soon as they feel them. To enhance this reporting of symptoms it is recommended that:
1. Employers communicate to their employees and management in writing and in person that a participatory Pre-injury Reporting Ergonomic Intervention program has been instituted, and that it is a top priority for the firm that it be well implemented and managed.
2. Management be aware of and supportive of the program and be given the tools to make it a success.
3. The program must be explained to all workers, with training sessions explaining what symptoms to keep an eye out for and how to report them.
4. Management emphasize to workers that they will not be upset by their reports, nor will they be risking their jobs.
5. Anonymous surveys or open honest discussions should be regularly initiated in the early stages of the program to gage the actual openness or fear level to report the symptoms.
6. Lastly, management should evaluate the results on a regular basis, including measuring the rates of injury reporting and actual rates of repetitive stress injuries, and get open feedback from management and workers so as to fine tune the program.
If properly implemented, an early symptom-reporting program should result in lower rates of repetitive stress illnesses, less employee turnover and happier, more committed plant employees.
Jim Niemic is president of Beacon Inc., a leading manufacturer of meat processing equipment and a pork industry expert. Contact him at (800) 445-4203 or visit www.beaconmetals.com