Policy changes in poultry industry could reduce worker injuries, report suggests

A survey of Hispanic poultry workers in western North Carolina suggests that policy changes such as encouraging job rotation and creating worker safety committees could result in fewer worker injuries.

"Policy changes are needed to improve the health and safety of workers," said Joseph Grzywacz, Ph.D., of the Center for Latino Health Research at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. "Poultry processing has among the highest occupational illness and injury rates of any private industry."

The recommendations follow a report issued in September from the same survey showing that almost half of workers had pain in their hands or arms during the previous month and 25 percent reported an occupational illness or injury in the past year.

"The reported rates of illness and injuries in the poultry industry are likely to be the tip of the iceberg," wrote the authors in the first report. "Workers often see the hazards as just part of the job, or they move on to other jobs as they begin to develop symptoms."

In this second report, the researchers discuss how management practices, such as the way jobs are designed or performed, may influence worker health. Among their recommendations are that:

  • Worker advocacy groups and community agencies should work with poultry processing plants to build a culture of safety in the plants.
  • Companies should create "safety committees" that include workers from across the company to give workers more control over their work environment.
  • Companies should implement a job-rotation program, such as described by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, to increase job variety and reduce the incidence of injuries.

"These policy changes can help ensure that poultry processing jobs are organized in a way that protects worker health in this vulnerable population," said Grzywacz, lead author on the second report. He is an assistant professor of family and community medicine at the medical school, which is part of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

The survey, which involved face-to-face interviews with 200 Hispanic poultry workers, was conducted by Wake Forest researchers in collaboration with Centro Latino of Caldwell County, Inc. It was based on a representative sample of workers in six counties (Alexander, Burke, Caldwell, Surry, Wilkes and Yadkin) that have five processing plants.

Data were collected on worker health, characteristics of poultry processing jobs and management practices related to safety and supervision. The results show that workers' jobs require frequent awkward postures and repetitive movements, they have little control over their work, and they report little variety in their tasks. The researchers found that minimal task variety and the demands of keeping up with the assembly line are both associated with increased risk of musculoskeletal problems.

The survey also showed that workers reported, on average, that management's commitment to safety was moderate. But, when workers perceived the commitment to safety as low, there was an increased risk of respiratory symptoms and occupational illnesses or injury.

"The study suggests that modifications in management practice and changes in how poultry processing jobs are designed and performed may yield improvements in worker health," said Grzywacz.

In 2004, an estimated 235,100 workers were employed in the poultry processing industry with a majority concentrated in southern states. Nationwide, almost half (42 percent) of poultry processing workers are Hispanic, and 26 percent are foreign-born, representing countries from across Latin America, Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

The research is part of a four-year project funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. In addition to Grzywacz, researchers were Thomas Arcury, Ph.D., Michael Coates, M.D., M.S., Antonio Marin, M.A., and Sara Quandt, Ph.D., all with Wake Forest Baptist; and Bless Burke, M.A., and Lourdes Carrillo, B.S., with Centro Latino.

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Media Contacts: Karen Richardson, krchrdsn@wfubmc.edu; Shannon Koontz, shkoontz@wfubmc.edu; at 336-716-4587

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. U.S. News & World Report ranks Wake Forest University School of Medicine 30th in primary care, 41st in research and 14th in geriatrics training among the nation's medical schools. It ranks 32nd in research funding by the National Institutes of Health. Almost 150 members of the medical school faculty are listed in Best Doctors in America.


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