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

The truth about health hazards in the poultry industry - what is really happening to your workers - Part 1

By Leon Harmse on 19 September 2016

The negative effects of growth in the poultry industry

I came across this article published recently in the Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, written by J Leon Harmse, Professor JC Engelbrecht and Dr. JL Bekker from Department of Environmental Health, Tshwane University of Technology, Private Bag X680, Pretoria 0001, South Africa. The journal and Leon agreed to let us share the content with you. It makes for fascinating reading - here are the highlights (well actually they are lowlights).

While there are those consumers who don’t eat beef or pork, chicken meat remains on most menus. Harmse positions the significance of the poultry industry as follows:

  • The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (UN) estimates an annual growth of 1.6% in the industry globally to produce some 108.7 million tonnes of poultry meat.
  • In South Africa (SA), the poultry industry is the country’s largest individual agricultural industry contributing 17% to the gross value of agricultural products with an annual growth of 1.3%  during 2013.

The worldwide trend in the last 10 years has been to improve food safety standards. According Leon’s research however, this has not been the case with health (and safety) standards for workers. The constant drive for higher profit and production, as well as increasing production line speeds, impact negatively on working conditions.

He quotes United States (U.S.) unions, such as the Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Catering and Allied Workers Union and the National Union of Workers, stating that safe food begins with worker safety and health and that unlawful and unethical practices at production facilities are reducing and compromising the quality and safety of food produced.

Occupational health and safety issues that need to be managed in poultry abattoir processing facilities

Harmse’s reviewed information supplied by International Labor Organization (ILO), the U.S. Accountability Officece and the UN Human Rights Watch (HRW) which identifies the following occupational health hazards namely:

  • physical agents such as noise, exposure to cold, vibration
  • ergonomic hazards including manual and repetitive work such as hanging and cutting, forceful exertion, awkward work positions and fast work pace
  • hazardous chemical substances including dust, cleaning/disinfecting chemicals, value adding products and gases
  • hazardous biological agents such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, endotoxins and ectoparasites

In fact, the HRW reports that poultry processing workers perform one of the most dangerous jobs and the work environment poses risks greater than those faced by workers in many other manufacturing processes and sectors.

And this becomes an economic problem as there can be increased absenteeism; reduce the quality of life of employees and compromise productivity and product quality.

Normal processing or human rights violations?

But what is a normal part of processing and what are avoidable hazards? According to the HRW, the poultry industry does not regard their hazardous practices as possible violations of international human rights and many national constitutions. Work practices are often in conflict with UN principles which state that everyone is entitled to the enjoyment of favourable, safe and health conditions at work The routine processes in the poultry industry are responsible for the following work induced conditions:

  • blood pressure and menstrual disorders
  • noise-induced hearing loss
  • hypothermia
  • frostbite
  • ergonomic effects including work-related upper limb disorders such as rotator cuff syndrome, epicondylitis at the elbow, tenosynovitis and nerve entrapments such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

So how big is the problem? What do the numbers say?

According to Harmse, the Health and Safety Executive in the UK (HSE), identified musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), mainly comprising work-related upper limb disorders (WRULDs) and back injuries, and noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) as the top UK occupational diseases. The HSE classifies poultry production as a sector of concern reflecting increasing occupational disease and injury rates. In the U.S., civic organisations and worker unions claim the injury and disease rate is almost twice as high for workers in poultry processing at 5.9%, compared to that of workers in the private sector which were at 3.8%.

While these numbers are already concerning, there is a good chance that this is not the real picture.

Leon found that the ILO is of the opinion that under-reporting of compensable occupational diseases often occurs, an opinion which is shared by the HSE. Occupational disease may go unrecognised because diagnosing occupational injuries such as broken limbs or cuts is less complicated than diagnosing asthma, allergies or in?ammation which develops slowly or away from the workplace.

Underreporting of non-fatal occupational health and safety accidents and diseases across all U.S. industry sectors is estimated at 69%. Companies only report work days lost and workers are often re-assigned to other tasks and this incidence or disease is never reported

So what do your numbers say?

In part 2 of this article we will discuss the processing practices contributing to these conditions and what should be done about it.


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.