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The truth about health hazards in the poultry industry - what's really happening to your workers - Part 2

By Leon Harmse on 19 September 2016

The real issues in the poultry industry – what the scientists have found

Leon Harmse reviewed an extensive amount of existing research available that had been conducted in the poultry industry until 2014. Focussing on ergonomic and physical health impacts on poultry abattoir processing workers he found the following to be consistently problematic.

We make a lot of noise

Noise levels in poultry production may reach levels well in excess of the OEL  (85dB(A))

·         primary processing (87 dB(A));

·         meat cutting and processing (90 dB(A));

·         packaging including hoppers(95dB(A)); and

·         blast chillers(107dB(A)).

Noise leads to occupational related noise-induced hearing loss, reproductive impact, lowered birth rate  increase in blood pressure and accidentsamongst others.

Your turn:

When last did you have an occupational hygiene assessment conducted to measure your noise levels?

Not a good vibration

Hand-Arm Vibration (HAV) is de?ned as the transfer of vibration from a tool to a worker’s hand and arm. Vibrating equipment, commonly used, causes an interaction between vibration, repetitive tasks, force and cold causing Hand-Arm vibration syndrome (HAVS), which is aggravated in the presence of cold and by performing repetitive tasks

The downside to the cold chain

The cold requirements in production and dispatch areas are ideal for food safety and quality but don’t work well for us as the optimum temperature range for humans varies between 13 and 24?C. The cold makes the impact of vibration and ergonomic effects even worse.

Your turn:

What is your policy on PPE for thermal protection, how regular are your breaks?

Cut, rinse repeat – repeatedly

Despite advances, automation and improved work procedures, the poultry industry is labour and hand intensive with many tasks being repetitive in nature, requiring force, reach, lifts and twists.

We receive

  • Lift;
  • Hang;
  • Slaughter;
  • Cut;
  • Carry
  • Process;
  • Add value;
  • Package; and
  • Ship repeated during the day

Ergonomic hazards affect hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, the neck and back – all used in the daily workout of a poultry processing worker.

You try more than 2000 cuts per shift or hanging more than a thousand birds or carcases during a shift and see how you feel. Try repeating the same apparent trivial movements sometimes up to 30,000 times a day—repeating the same task for eight to ten hours per shift during a typical workday with limited breaks, sometimes performing the task in awkward or static postures. It is a recipe for disaster. And then the research shows that employers are sceptical that these movements can actually cause an  occupational disease and lead to demotivated workers, absenteeism and high worker turnover!

Poor facilities, machine and tool design, faster production lines and ever increasing  production output (in facilities that were originally designed for lower production output – which was acceptable then but causes chaos with increased production which in turn is treated as “NORMAL” by management), places increasing physical stress and demand on workers.  With all the mechanisation and automation to achieve higher production in the poultry industry, the one thing remains – THE KNIFE. Using a knife for cutting, removal of fat or skin, trimming and processing, implies the use of force and forceful exertions which assist in muscular skeletal disorders which we chatted about in part 1. Mechanisation also did not do  away with many repetitive tasks.

There is no speed limit here

With the frenzy to ensure production line optimisation things have been speeding up. Workers have no control over the line speed and cannot stop to rest or take breaks when their bodies tell them to. In the US some food producers do not allow workers breaks at all or at best limited breaks forcing workers to wear disposable nappies – just Google it – you will find hundreds of report in this regard! Fortunately no trace of this practice was found in SA. Leon’s paper highlights that in SA, some high throughput abattoirs slaughter 350,000 to 400,000 birds per 10 h shift. In the U.S., production line speeds of 70 birds per minute was increased to 120 birds per minute and the increase in line speed lead to greater productivity and pro?t, but not to safer and healthier poultry processing plant workers.

Your turn:

What is your policy on breaks?

This is a management problem. Part 3 of this article will deal with the actions management need to take to improve working conditions.


Harmse, J.L.; Engelbrecht, J.C.; Bekker, J.L. The Impact of Physical and Ergonomic Hazards on Poultry Abattoir Processing Workers: A Review. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2016, 13, 197.