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NIOSH Study: Line Speed Not an Issue in Poultry Inspection Overhaul

Extended full-time work in the poultry industry does come with the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome and other musculoskeletal disorders and injuries, but line speed does not appear to contribute all that much to the problem, according to a report from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

The new report about the physical toll on workers at a South Carolina poultry plant includes recommendations for both management and employees for staying physically fit while on the job. Those NIOSH recommendations are included in a 46-page report in which the nation’s top worker-safety researchers found no link between increased line speeds and employee injuries.

NIOSH evaluated the poultry workers at the company’s request so it would be able to obtain a waiver under USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Salmonella Initiative Program. Two lines with speeds of 90 birds per minute in August 2012 were compared to one line of 175 birds per minute in June 2013.

The number of birds per employee did not change, and the move to a single higher speed line did not result in an increase in hand or wrist injuries or disorders by the workers, the report stated.

The NIOSH study was comprehensive. Researchers had access to all employee personal and health records. They interviewed 318 workers currently on the job at the plant, and the researchers identified 67 job tasks involving “repetition and force.”

NIOSH found that 42 percent of the workforce “had evidence of carpal tunnel syndrome.”

The NIOSH study helps USDA with its long-time goal of movingto a more pathogen-based poultry inspection system. It created the HACCP-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) 15 years ago. Unions representing meat inspectors opposed HIMP from the day it began and blocked any inspection overhaul from spreading beyond the HIMP plants.

Now on the eve of publishing a final rule, USDA is once again under enormous political pressure to back off its HIMP-based Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection program from unions, mostly liberal House Democrats, and even some food safety groups which see prospective gains from the change as being too modest.

Previously, FSIS fell back on the fact that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and NIOSH, not USDA, are responsible for worker safety. This time, FSIS has invited in OSHA and NIOSH.

“Worker safety in the poultry industry is being addressed in ways it never has before,” one source told Food Safety News.

Much of the NIOSH report and its recommendations deals with specific job tasks such as how knives are handled and sharpened, how employees stand on platforms with the correct height, and how frequently workers doing repetitive tasks need work breaks.

Al Almanza, who started as a meat inspector on the line and now holds the top administrative job at FSIS, said, “We’ve been having the wrong conversation.”

He called on poultry industry leaders to look at the recommendations for dealing with worker safety found in the new report.

© Food Safety News