Researchers led by Hester Lipscomb, an associate professor of occupational and environmental medicine at Duke, interviewed 291 female, mostly African-American employees from the Perdue Farms chicken plant in Lewiston, N.C., after women from the plant community approached them about health concerns of the poultry workers. Approximately 2,500 workers work at the Lewiston plant and process more than 400,000 chickens a day.
The results of the study point out that the pace and pressures of the job have contributed to the employees’ musculoskeletal injuries of the hands, arms and neck. While it is imperative that such pressures need to be reduced to protect workers from injury, the researchers acknowledged that a number of economic, social and political factors could complicate such efforts.
“The women reported that their upper extremity problems were often dismissed as being the result of obesity or child care responsibilities or mental health problems,” Lipscomb said. “However, while the levels of obesity and depression are of concern to us, our analysis found that these factors do not explain the high incidence of musculoskeletal problems separate from their work exposures and physical pathology.”
Lipscomb also found that women who were worried about losing their jobs during the first encounter with the study team were more likely to be identified as having a new musculoskeletal disorder at a follow-up visit.
"We hypothesize that women with high job insecurity may continue to work despite symptoms and without seeking treatment, which may lead to more serious disorders later," Lipscomb said. "The plant we examined is in a poor rural area with an African-American majority population. The average pay is eight dollars an hour, and even at that low rate, these are considered some of the better paying jobs in the area."
Perdue Refutes Study’s Claims
In response to the study, Perdue spokesman Julie DeYoung said that the study’s results were “completely at odds” with the changes they made in addressing ergonomic issues. According to the company, its OSHA total recordable incidents, which include musculoskeletal injuries, were 44 percent better than the industry average.
DeYoung also maintains that the Lewiston, N.C. plant has worked 6 million man-hours without a lost-time accident, including no lost time for musculoskeletal injuries. Worker compensation cases related to musculoskeletal issues at Lewiston have fallen 68 percent from their highest point, she said.
“We've made great progress in addressing ergonomic issues and are proud of our programs and safety record,” she said. “Over the last 15 years, we’ve worked with OSHA and North Carolina OSH to make extensive changes to improve the workplace, including automation and equipment improvements, job conditioning, job rotation, ergonomic training and treatment protocols of early intervention for MSD symptoms.”
Currently, no federal health and safety agencies regulate line speeds of poultry plants. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets maximal line speeds to ensure food safety, without regard for worker safety.
"Since the USDA began setting line speeds in 1968, the pace has increased from less than 20 birds a minute to the current maximum of 91 birds a minute," Lipscomb said. "Reducing the health exposures for these women in the current political climate could be difficult, considering the occupational health and safety guidelines are based on voluntary compliance."