A NIOSH health-hazard evaluation of a South Carolina poultry processing plant reveals “an alarming prevalence of carpal tunnel syndrome” among workers, the agency says.
NIOSH researchers, who visited the plant three times in 2012 and 2013, determined that 42 percent of the employees who participated in the evaluation had evidence of carpal tunnel syndrome, and 41 percent worked in jobs involving hand activity and force above recommended limits for minimizing risk of carpel tunnel syndrome.
NIOSH found that 57 percent of the participants reported at least one musculoskeletal symptom (not including hand or wrist symptoms) at both baseline and follow-up evaluations.
The agency notes that the plant’s recordable injury and illness rate was 1.3 times higher than the national averages for the poultry processing industry for 2009-2012. The most common work-related injuries were cuts, punctures and scrapes; repetitive motion; slips, trips and falls; and caught in, under or between.
NIOSH’s final report, released in March, makes recommendations to improve work conditions and minimize exposures to factors that increase the risk for musculoskeletal disorders and traumatic injuries. The recommendations address changes for reducing the amount of hand activity and force; changing work-schedule and rotation patterns and policies; and improving work practices related to tool and equipment use.
The poultry plant requested the NIOSH evaluation as part of a USDA requirement to receive approval for a planned increase in the speed of its evisceration line. The plant asked NIOSH to analyze the potential effect of the line-speed increase on musculoskeletal and upper-extremity injuries.
NIOSH researchers evaluated ergonomic hazards, hand and wrist nerve damage and traumatic injuries before and after the line-speed increase. As part of their analysis, the researchers assessed repetition and force in 67 job tasks; collected medical records and injury and illness logs; tested nerve function among employees and live-hang contractors; and interviewed production-line workers.
Nearly 40 percent of the 131 employees who took part in both the baseline and follow-up evaluations reported musculoskeletal symptoms involving the hand or wrist, according to NIOSH’s report.
In the report, NIOSH offers these recommendations for the employer:
- Implement the 2013 OSHA Guidelines for Poultry Processing and recommendations from poultry industry groups to prevent musculoskeletal disorders.
- Design job tasks so that levels of hand activity and force are below the ACGIH threshold-limit values.
- Until the redesign is completed, use a job-rotation schedule to allow employees to rotate to jobs that are below the ACGIH TLV for hand activity and force.
- Ensure that the knife changeout schedule is strictly followed.
- Provide more than one break during the work shift.
- Enhance reporting, screening and medical assessment on site to improve early intervention for musculoskeletal disorders and traumatic injuries.
- Remove the medicine dispenser in the cafeteria.
- Use good housekeeping procedures (for example, repair uneven work surfaces and small holes or depressions in the floor) to reduce slips, trips and falls.
NIOSH’s report makes these recommendations for workers:
- Report symptoms and injuries, as soon as they occur, to supervisors and onsite medical staff.
- Use only sharp knives for cutting. Ensure that knives are sharp by using mousetraps frequently and changing knives on a regular basis.
- Make sure the standing platforms are adjusted to the correct height to perform the job task.
- Report potential slip, trip and fall hazards to supervisors so they can be addressed quickly.
- If the evaluation revealed an abnormal nerve-conduction test results, workers should follow up with onsite medical staff and their personal doctors.
NIOSH notes that the plant had approximately 1,560 full-time employees during the time of the evaluation. During the baseline visit, the plant processed approximately 159,000 birds per day; during the follow-up visit, the plant processed roughly 148,000 birds per day.
Between NIOSH's baseline and follow-up visits, the plant combined two evisceration lines – each operating at 90 birds per minute – into one line operating at 175 birds per minute. In making this change, the number of birds processed per minute by each worker did not change, NIOSH notes.