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Wednesday
Aug042010

Illnesses and Injuries Reported by Latino Poultry Workers in Western North Carolina

Published in the AMERICAN JOURNAL OF INDUSTRIAL MEDICINE 49:343–351 (2006)

Sara A. Quandt, PhD, Joseph G. Grzywacz, PhD, Antonio Marín, MA, Lourdes Carrillo, BS, Michael L. Coates, MD, MS, Bless Burke, MA, and Thomas A. Arcury, PhD.

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Poultry is now the largest and fastest growing sector of the U.S. meat products industry, both in pounds produced and in number of workers. Nationwide, workers in processing plants numbered about 235,100 in 2004 [Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2005a], concentrated largely in five southern states: Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, and North Carolina [US Department of Agriculture, 2004]. Because the workforce turns over every year [Government Accountability Office, 2005], far more than a quarter million people have been and will be poultry workers. Poultry has historically employed many minority workers (particularly African Americans), those with few employment options and little power to organize and demand better working conditions. Over the last few decades, the industry has replaced many of these workers with immigrants [Fink, 1998; Grey and Woodrick, 2002]. The majority is from Mexico and Guatemala, with substantial numbers from Southeast Asia and the Pacific in some plants [Government Accountability Office, 2005].

Poultry processing workers have some of the highest occupational injury rates of all U.S. industries [Government Accountability Office, 2005]. In 2004, close to 20,000 poultry workers nationwide reported occupational injuries or illnesses severe enough to miss work or seek medical care, for a rate of 7.8 per 100 full-time workers. The nonfatal injury rate was 5.5/100 workers [Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2005a], and the illness rate, 2.3/100 [Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2005b]. Poultry processing had the sixth highest occupational illness rate of any private industry in the US in 2004 [Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2005c].

Poultry processing plants are designed for rapid slaughtering, butchering, and packaging of meat. The process combines rapid line speed with distinct divisions of labor on the processing line [Lipscomb et al., 2005]. Musculoskeletal injuries and illnesses are thought to be the principal on-the-job safety problems for workers on the processing line. Other aspects of the work environment— dampness, animal proteins, contamination from poultry excreta, feathers and other organic substances, knives and scissors in crowded conditions—are thought to be responsible for other types of injuries and illnesses. Dermatological injuries and illnesses are common (Quandt et al., unpublished data), as are respiratory injuries and illnesses [Campbell, 1999]. Despite the high rates of injury alleged to occur in the poultry processing industry and the large number of studies that have examined the health effects of poultry production, there are virtually no studies that document occupational injuries and illnesses in workers in poultry processing.

The reported rates of illnesses and injuries in the poultry industry are likely to be the tip of the iceberg [National Research Council, 2003]. Workers often see the hazards as part of the job, or they move on to other jobs as they begin to develop symptoms, especially when those symptoms limit work activity [Human Rights Watch, 2004; Lipscomb et al., 2005]. Among immigrant—particularly undocumented— workers, reporting illnesses and injuries is difficult because of language barriers and brings with it the fear of job loss or deportation [Fink, 1998; Government Accountability Office, 2005]. Because the only sources of occupational health statistics for the poultry industry are Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports, symptoms or illnesses not reported or not considered by worker or supervisor to be work-related are not included [Azaroff et al., 2002].

Workplace safety training and policies have been shown in other industries to change safety practices and prevent occupational illnesses and injuries [Becker and Morawetz, 2004; Hooper and Charney, 2005]. However, there is no evidence for such prevention in the poultry industry. The poultry industry is covered by the General Duty Clause of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Standards, which sets general standards for protection from environmental toxins (e.g., radiation, noise, hazardous substances) and for personal protective equipment (PPE), machinery, and other aspects of the work environment [OSHA, 2005a]. While the industry is also covered by some OSHA regulations for issues such as fire safety and electrical hazards, there are no special standards for the poultry industry for ergonomic hazards and other significant hazards.

The primary purpose of this study is to document the self-reported specific symptoms consistent with occupational injuries and illnesses among Latino poultry workers in western North Carolina. The secondary purpose is to relate illnesses and injuries reported to the workers’ perceptions of poultry plant safety climate and practices.