For official information on the COVID-19 outbreak in South Africa, go to

The truth about health hazards in the poultry industry - what's really happening to your workers - Part 3

By Leon Harmse on 19 September 2016

Poultry hazards – this is a management problem, people!

Leon reported that according to Human Rights Watch, the poultry industry sets up facilities and introduces practices which create hazards and risks to workers and treat the resulting mayhem as a “normal” natural part of the production process and not as possible violations of international human rights and many national constitutions. Work practices are often in con?ict with UN human rights principles which state that everyone is entitled to the enjoyment of favourable, safe and health conditions at work.

Employers are legally compelled to provide a healthy work environment by assessing the health risk workers are exposed to and to implement and manage control systems to prevent occupational disease.

How should this be done?

Step 1: Know thine hazards

Use the services of a SAIOH registered occupational hygienists to assist with anticipating, recognition, evaluation and control of occupational hazards. This is the hazard identification risk assessment HIRA requirement in your OHS systems. You need to understand how bad it really is and quantity your risks. Leon found that most poultry abattoirs are on average only capable to identify 9 % of all hazards present in all production phases during primary and secondary poultry processing.

Step 2: Manage thine hazards

Once you know, you need do something about it. Using the hierarchy of control either redesign tasks, processes and tools, implement administrative controls through job rotation, reduction in shift duration, broadening of work content thus adapting the work environment and not the worker.

Leon recommend that where possible, it is best to alleviate the risk by workstation design, i.e., adjustable height, the layout of conveyors and equipment, design of and equipment to avoid the need for workers to adopt awkward postures.

Step 3: Use the comfortable reach zone

Most work, especially forceful cuts, or gripping and lifting tasks should be done within the “comfortable reach zone” and with the wrist and elbow close to the neutral position, repetitive handling should be done in a zone 450 mm in front of the body. Knives should have secure grips and be sharp as this reduces force; unfortunately, most gloves affect the grip negatively leading to workers applying more force.

Step 4: Invest in worker comforts

Harmse suggests that packaging should be designed to limit lifting or picking up, care should be taken to avoid cold draughts on the shoulders and necks of workers and machines should be maintained to reduce noise levels.

Step 5: Give it a break

To reduce risks further job rotation could be a positive strategy, as by moving workers between different tasks which require different grips and different muscle groups, prolonged repetition is avoided. Rest breaks are important where highly paced, repetitive work is done and productivity falls quite quickly after the start of the shift and scheduled breaks should be timed so that workers get a rest before their arms or shoulders become fatigued. You can introduce a muscle strengthening programme but make sure you use a qualified bio-kineticist for this.

Step 6: Train worker to protect themselves

Workers must receive training on handling tools, the importance of breaks, wearing of personal protective equipment to protect against cold and noise. It is also important for workers to understand the need to take scheduled breaks and to use them as an opportunity to rest and recover.

Step 7: Measure so you can manage

You can do all the steps about but you need to know if they are working. To ensure these measures are effective, Leon suggested that occupational health practitioners and occupational medicine practitioners should be used to prevent, diagnose and treat occupational disease by instituting medical surveillance of workers. Encourage workers to report symptoms and set up mechanisms to collect relevant data and for the review of records, complaints, absenteeism, clinic visits to establish links between data obtained and specific tasks. Baseline medicals must be conducted to establish a base against which changes can be evaluated through routine medical examination. Employees with any work related conditions must be promptly evaluated and appropriate treatment and follow-up provided. Take each case seriously.

Step 8: Make this a strategic issue

As with all important issues, dealing with these problems in your abattoir will only be effective if management demonstrate visible leadership and commitment. Workers, supervisors and managers will have to work with health and safety practitioners to find workable solutions.

Harmse’s research found, that to be effective, there must be:

  • Continual communication on the importance of worker health at all levels;
  • Assigning and communicating the roles and responsibilities for the different aspects of the ergonomic and physical process to managers, supervisors and employees; - health and safety happens on the production floor
  • Adequate resources to the ergonomics and physical process
  • Integrating of health (and safety) concerns into production processes and production improvements

Step 9: It’s here for life

Many initiatives fail as there is no consistent follow through. This kind of programme needs the same amount of attention as managing your budget. People are people and people take short cuts. Make sure this is not another flavour of the month.


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.