The meatpacking industry has been a profitable, yet criticized, industry since the beginning of the 20th century. Since the 1980s, improvements in distribution allowed many meatpacking corporations to move their organizations to more rural areas near livestock. At this time, many larger organizations modified operations and increased work speeds and productivity while also trimming their labor expenses.

These tactics consolidated the industry but also created greater working hazards for employees. As of late, the meatpacking industry attests that injuries have declined in the past few years; yet, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, injuries in the meatpacking business are twice as frequent as those in other industries. According to the Public Broadcast Station, this figure may even be an underestimate because of the vast number of unreported injuries.

Production line speed is the culprit for the increased incidence of injuries in the meatpacking industry. In a typical large plant, more than 300 cattle are slaughtered and processed in only one hour, which can lead to worker injuries. Beyond that, excessive speeds are also linked with a higher incidence of food contamination. To reduce the risk of contamination, experts often point to slowing the line to increase worker accuracy.

Workplace Injuries and the Line

Employees in the meatpacking industry complain of many injuries as a result of repetitive line tasks. Some common injuries to watch out for include the following:

  • Excessive force injuries and achiness in the tendons
  • Back pain from standing for an entire shift
  • Repetitive motion injuries (most commonly carpal tunnel syndrome) or cumulative trauma injuries from using knives, cleavers, hooks and power tools for long hours
  • Lacerations from tools (employees’ own or from a nearby co-worker) due to cutting in close quarters
  • Heavy lifting and exertion causes back pain
  • Worker fatigue and lethargy from long hours
  • Progressive inflammatory neuropathy from the compressed air used in meatpacking processes, which causes burning, numbness and weakness in the arms and legs
  • Sickness or weakened immune system from contaminated meat in work spaces

Food Safety Concerns

Excessive line speeds have also been linked to food contamination. While trying to keep pace with the line, many workers struggle to identify contaminated meat carrying dangerous bacteria, such as E. coli. Fecal contamination, which is the chief breeding ground for E. coli, accounts for more than 73,000 illnesses annually across the United States.

Both employee injuries and contaminated products can destroy your bottom line. When employees are injured, workers’ compensation costs and health care benefit expenses increase dramatically, especially if injuries are frequent and serious. Turning out products that are contaminated and can make the public ill will not only result in additional expenses for court fees and business interruption—it could also severely tarnish your reputation, leading to lower profits and reduced sales.

Line Safety Solutions

To reduce your employees’ risk of injury and the risk of food contamination, implement the following solutions:

  • Reduce line speed to a level that is comfortable for workers to get their tasks done without excessively rushing and putting their safety in danger. Remember that speeding up the line could boost production numbers, but you will likely pay in the long run.
  • Keep accurate logs of injuries and illnesses. Assess your plant’s incidents and near misses, and put safeguards in place to reduce these occurrences.
  • Adopt ergonomics policies at your organization that promote the safe and effective use of tools and work practices.
  • Institute more job rotations and more frequent breaks throughout shifts.
  • Provide more training for workers, and make it available in multiple languages if necessary. Highlight the importance of prompt injury reporting.
  • Purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) for your employees instead of requiring them to purchase it to ensure it is up to standards and in proper working order at all times. Once again, this will save money in the long run by preventing injuries and lost time.
  • Provide adequate space between workers on the line.
  • Hire enough employees to staff the line adequately.

Many corporations are confused as to a reasonable rate of speed for their line. The solution? This truly depends on how many employees work on the line, the tasks done on the line and the time it takes to do those tasks. The goal is to balance these factors. If the line is too fast, you will lose your products’ quality and your employees will suffer more injuries.