Food production employers put a lot of time, energy, and money into workplace injury prevention. However, since the food production industry has higher than average injury rates, employers in this field must pay particular attention to reducing them. The chief reason for this, of course, is to protect valued employees from harm. However, beyond that fundamental goal are other important considerations for any successful business – most notably, a financial interest in reducing substantial costs that come with work-related injuries.
What are the costs of workplace injuries to the food production industry?
According to OSHA estimates, employers nationwide pay out about $1 billion in direct workers' compensation costs every week. A BLS report states that the food production industry is paying a disproportionate share of those costs, with injury rates in 2008 of 6.2 cases per 100 full-time workers as compared to a rate of 3.9 for private industry overall – making the injury rate in the food production industry nearly double that for the rest of private industry.
The average lost-time workers' comp claim, according to The National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI), costs the employer $29,400 in medical expenses and $23,600 in indemnity, or wage replacement, costs. If only half of the 6 injuries per 100 workers is a lost time claim, the direct workers comp costs per 100 workers would be nearly $160,000 with indirect costs typically doubling this figure – $320,000 total costs per 100 workers. In an industry where the top 10 producers have an average profit margin of 13%, the employer with just 100 workers would have to generate nearly $2.5 million in new revenue just to cover the cost of work related injuries.
What are the typical injuries in food production?
The physically demanding movements required of food service industry workers are directly connected with the development of lower back injuries and upper extremity repetitive musculoskeletal disorders.
Some of these musculoskeletal disorders include:
- Tendinitis: inflammation of a tendon
- Carpal tunnel syndrome: swelling and entrapment of the median nerve in the wrist
- Thoracic outlet syndrome: squeezing of the nerves and blood vessels between the neck and shoulder
- Low back strain and sprain that sometimes leads to development of sciatica, bulging or ruptured discs in the lower back, causing lower back pain that also extends to the legs and feet
What are the causes of these injuries in the food production industry?
A variety of factors present in the food production industry create these injuries:
- Repeated heavy lifting combined with twisting
This occurs while moving product from low and high heights, stacking product onto pallets, emptying product into vats or cooking containers, and moving product to and from conveyors and workstations.
- Repetitive hand and wrist motions performed at a machine-controlled pace, particularly for inspection, sorting, packing, or boxing functions
- Repetitive gripping when loading cans or the repetitive squeezing of a food product dispenser
- Awkward postures
As associates work across deep work surfaces, perform shrink wrapping, reach into deep bins to retrieve product, load product into bins or vats above the shoulder, and stack pallets to the desired height above shoulder or below waist, they must often position themselves in unnatural postures.
- Static or sustained postures are required for prolonged periods of standing or sitting.
When these postures are maintained for prolonged periods, circulation decreases, blood pools in the feet and legs, and fatigue ensues. As fatigue develops, muscles and other soft tissue becomes more easily strained.
What 3 major strategies can be implemented to cut the cost of work-related injuries in food production?
The average food production organization puts a number of injury prevention methodologies into practice to mitigate the risk of work-related injuries. Three primary strategies that may yield the highest results are:
- Ergonomic interventions.
A thorough discussion of all the possible ergonomic interventions in the food production industry is beyond the scope of this blog. However, a few general categories are extremely effective and worth mentioning:
- Using equipment such as hand dollies, carts, fork lifts, power pallet jacks, lift trucks, and vacuum lifts to transport heavy materials as often as possible
- Providing ergonomically designed tools to maintain the hand and wrist in neutral alignment for repetitive hand tasks
- Creating adjustable height work stations and seating to accommodate employees of varying sizes
- Providing anti-fatigue mats for prolonged standing
- Job rotation or enlargement for highly repetitive jobs
- Making sure protective equipment such as gloves fit properly and don’t interfere with hand function
- Operating food dispensers with a foot pedal or hand lever
- Utilizing tilting food bins or bins that open from the side to provide easier access and minimize bending and reaching
- Providing raised platforms to eliminate or reduce overhead reaching and lifting
- Utilize narrow conveyors to minimize extended reaching forward
- Employee training
Minimizing the repetitive stresses that this industry creates on employees' bodies is important. Ergonomic interventions have little impact if employees don’t know how to utilize them and understand the principles behind their implementation. In addition, all the stresses of food production cannot be engineered out of the work. To compliment ergonomic interventions, employees must know how to:
- Safely perform manual materials handling (i.e. lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling)
- Work together to perform 2-person lifts when appropriate
- Utilize equipment to perform heavy lifts whenever possible
- Use their body weight and momentum to their advantage when performing pushing and pulling tasks
- Position themselves at their work stations in a way that keeps their joints in a neutral alignment, thus maximizing blood flow and minimizing fatigue
- Place product in locations that minimize bending, squatting, twisting, and reaching
- Periodically shift static positions to maximize circulation and minimize fatigue
- Pre-Hire Physical Abilities Testing (PAT)
PAT is a lesser known but equally effective injury prevention strategy that focuses on hiring healthier, more physically fit workers – people capable of meeting the physical demands of their jobs with ease. Hiring capable workers is, of course, the primary goal of any pre-employment selection process. However, if you have higher than average rates of workplace injuries, particularly among new hires, chances are yours is missing the mark in terms of identifying important physical capabilities in your candidates. The fact is, it can be difficult to determine whether a candidate is capable of performing the job based on traditional screening methods like physician physicals. The better way to achieve the goal of hiring employees who can handle the demands of the job is by making Physical Abilities Testing (PAT) part of your pre employment screening process.
How does PAT work?
When initiating a Physical Abilities Testing (PAT) program, first, the physical demands of the jobs you wish to fill are identified via a thorough job demands analysis, presenting a clear and accurate assessment of the unique physical stresses that each job places on workers.
A test is then formulated to assess the ability of job candidates to meet those demands. In the food processing industry the testing may include lifting, pushing, pulling, stooping, squatting, and reaching.
Candidates who pass this job-specific PAT prove their ability to perform safely and efficiently in your workplace, which translates into a significantly reduced risk of work-related injuries.
What are the proven results of PAT?
In research published by the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, employees of a large food production plant who passed a pre-hire PAT had a 3 percent incidence of low back injuries as opposed to 33 percent in untested workers – a 90% improvement as compared to those not tested.
Staffing your workplace with employees that can easily handle job demands means fewer injuries and lower costs – two extremely important reasons why your business needs to consider pre-hire PAT.
Integrating pre-hire Physical Abilities Testing into your pre-employment screening process can make a substantial difference in the quality of your new hires, ensuring that their physical capabilities are well-matched to the work at hand.
How do you decide what you are going to do to reduce injuries in 2016?
To help you reduce injuries in 2016, I have a few suggestions for you:
- Determine if most of your injuries are happening within the first 3 years of employment. If so, figure out which jobs are associated with you’ll definitely need to implement pre-hire testing.
- If you are lacking some of the ergonomic interventions mentioned above and can tie them directly to the types of injuries you are having, you’ll want to implement a trial before purchasing or making changes for your entire organization.
- If your employees have the equipment but aren’t using it or using it improperly, a training intervention may be the best course of action.