During the spring of 2020, scientists noticed that beef, pork, and poultry processing plants were emerging as hot spots for Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreaks. Workers in these plants were spreading COVID-19 at more than twice the national rate, according to a report in Bloomberg Law. However, catching an infectious disease is just one hazard that these employees face daily.
The fast-paced work, grueling physical demands, and crowded conditions in meat processing plants put employees at risk for many types of injuries. Poultry workers suffer serious injuries at about twice the rate of employees in private industries, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Workers in hog and cattle plants are about three times more likely to be injured as private industry workers. Employees who suffer work-related injuries or illnesses may be eligible for Workers’ Compensation benefits and, in some cases, additional damages if a third-party is found negligent.
Harsh working conditions have long contributed to a higher-than-average injury rate in the meat and poultry processing industry. Common types of injuries include the following:
Injuries due to heavy lifting. In many meat processing plants, workers must lift, load, and stack heavy boxes of meat onto pallets. Lifting and twisting the body with arms extended increases the compressive forces on the lower back, often leading to deep muscle strains and herniated disks over time. Although these types of injuries may not be associated with a single accident per se, the cumulative deterioration of the back or spine can lead to irreversible damage, affecting a person’s ability to work, according to OSHA. Heavy lifting can also lead to other musculoskeletal disorders, including neck and shoulder injuries, such as torn rotator cuffs.
Falls. The slippery floors in meat packing plants put workers at risk for slip and fall injuries ranging from minor bruises to dislocated shoulders or knees, hip fractures, spinal cord damage, or serious traumatic brain injury. In poultry plants, for example, walkways are often adjacent to fast-moving conveyor belts where chickens are processed using large amounts of water that continually splash on nearby surfaces. Scraps of fat falling off the conveyor line onto wet surfaces create dangerous, slippery conditions on stairs and walkways. Leaking pipes and poor drainage may also contribute to slippery floors.
Injuries due to repetitive motion. According to OSHA, the incidence of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in poultry processing is more than seven times the national average. In pork processing, workers must perform repetitive tasks with tools, such as split saws and knives. In addition to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, workers may develop painful conditions, including tendinitis, epicondylitis, and trigger finger.
Injuries due to defective machinery. Many aspects of meat processing are highly mechanized. When defective equipment lacks proper safety guards, workers attempting to perform maintenance or fix jammed machines many suffer serious hand and arm injuries, including amputated fingers, broken bones, and fractures. Machines used in meat processing include grinders, mixers, emulsifiers, rollers, hydrolyzers, cubers, cutters, and flatteners.
Injuries due to extended standing. Many employees in meat processing plants must stand shoulder-to-shoulder on assembly lines for long periods without a break. Extended standing can result in painful medical conditions, including plantar fasciitis, venous pooling of blood in the legs, and varicose veins.
Injuries due to line speeds. Many workers at meat processing plants perform tasks on high-speed assembly lines. Studies have documented that the risk of injury increases when workers are required to perform their jobs faster. These injuries include cuts, lacerations, and caught-between accidents, as well as cumulative musculoskeletal disorders.
Diseases from biological hazards. Workers in all types of meat processing plants may be exposed to blood and feces of animals that may harbor harmful bacteria. Poultry workers in particular are at risk for contracting additional illnesses, including avian influenza, salmonella, psittacosis, and Campylobacter. The incidence of contracting a work-related disease among poultry workers is more than six times the average for other industries, according to OSHA.
Medical conditions caused by chemical exposure. Ammonia is often used as a refrigerant in meat processing plants. Breathing ammonia vapors can cause lung damage. Peracetic acid, an irritating chemical, is commonly sprayed on poultry and meat during processing to kill bacteria. Workers often develop eye, nose, and throat irritation when exposed to peracetic acid, resulting in coughing, bleeding, and other symptoms.
Hearing impairment. Heavy machinery in meat and poultry processing plants produces constant noise, putting workers at risk for permanent hearing loss, tinnitus, and related conditions. More than 80 percent of the meat packing plants evaluated in a study by the University of Nebraska Medical Center had noise exceeding the levels considered hazardous by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Employees in crowded processing facilities also face risk of burns and smoke inhalation from fires and explosions caused by machinery powered by electricity or other means. Employers are responsible for ensuring that exit doors are not blocked or locked while employees are in the building to avoid catastrophe.
Workers at meat and poultry processing plants who suffer a work-related illness or injury should always report it to their supervisor. Unfortunately, many workers are afraid to do so, fearing that they may lose their jobs. OSHA guidelines specify that workers have the right to report all symptoms of injury or illness without fear of being fired, punished, or retaliated against in any way.
In addition to improving the healing process and preventing further serious complications, seeking medical treatment can help preserve an employee’s right to Workers’ Compensation benefits. These benefits can help pay for medical costs, lost wages, and other expenses that arise as a result of a work-related injury or illness.
In the case of an accident, it is important for workers to notify their supervisors as soon as possible. However, some medical problems or illnesses develop over time. Symptoms that meat and poultry workers should look for include hand or arm pain, numbness, stiffness, swelling, shoulder or back pain, loss of hearing, difficulty breathing, or problems with bending. Workers suffering these or any other work-related conditions should seek medical attention and notify their supervisors as soon as they are aware of the injury or illness.
It is important to remember that there are many cases in which a third party may be found negligent and therefore responsible for the accident that caused a worker to suffer serious injury. Injured workers can benefit by contacting a Workers’ Compensation lawyer to help them file for benefits and to determine if they may be entitled to additional damages by filing a third-party claim.
Galfand Berger LLP has helped many injured workers file claims for benefits to pay for medical bills and lost wages. Examples of claims handled for workers injured in meat and poultry processing plants include the following:
Worker suffered fractured wrist at poultry operation. The worker was attempting to clean a machine used to sort newly hatched chickens by gender. As she reached into the machine to remove debris, the plastic panel dropped and caught her hand in a pinch point formed by the plastic panel when it closed. Galfand Berger LLP commissioned an industrial engineering report that demonstrated that the machine was defective because it lacked a fixed safety guard that would have prevented workers from reaching into the dangerous area. Galfand Berger LLP obtained a settlement of $165,000 for the injured worker, who sustained ongoing neuropathy and weakness as a result of the fracture.
Worker’s arm severely injured by bacon press machine. The worker was operating a machine that jammed because of meat buildup. The worker pressed the machine’s reset button to hold the compression plates in the open position and proceeded to clear the jam. However, his finger slipped off the reset button and the compression plates closed on his right arm. Galfand Berger LLP investigated the incident and found that the machine was initially outfitted with a plexiglass lid and other features that would have prevented the accident. This lid was removed; therefore, the processor was deemed defective as it was redesigned and installed. The injured worker suffered a serious comminuted fracture to his right arm, resulting in permanent loss of dexterity and reduced grip strength. Galfand Berger LLP settled with the defendant for a confidential amount.
Dangerous conditions have put workers at risk of injury for many years. The experienced Philadelphia Workers’ Compensation lawyers at Galfand Berger LLP offer injured employees the professional legal counsel they need to guide them through the process of filing for benefits and evaluating whether a third party is also liable. To schedule a free consultation, call us today at 800-222-8792 or contact us online. From our offices in Philadelphia, Bethlehem, Lancaster, and Reading, Pennsylvania, we proudly serve clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey, including Allentown and Harrisburg.