Food Processing & Production Injuries:  Can they be prevented?

[fa icon="calendar'] May 31, 2022 2:36:22 PM / by Deborah Lechner

This is the introduction for a five-part series on injuries and prevention strategies in the food processing and production industry.

The Food Production/Processing Industry:  Which industries are included?  

When it comes to food production and processing there are a wide variety of manufacturers that produce, process and distribute food.  There are more than 200,000 registered food manufacturing, processing, and storage facilities and the work ranges from labor-intensive, to highly mechanized.  Workers in the food production industry produce, process, package, and transport and store food products in warehouses that are then transported to grocery stores and restaurants.

The figure below shows the entire process from farm to table.

The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report (  on injuries occurring in the food manufacturing sector identifies nine sub-industry sectors.  As you can see the largest individual sectors (based on annual average employment) include animal slaughtering and processing, bakeries and tortilla manufacturing and fruit and vegetable preserving.  

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The three major job functions within food processing include:

1.  Food processing: The processes that involve the handling and treatment of food and ingredients throughout a food processing facility.

2.  Maintenance: The activity associated with keeping the mechanical equipment, structures and surfaces in a food processing facility in good repair to establish safe and efficient operating conditions.

3.  Sanitation and cleanup: Includes ongoing activities that occur wherever food is being processed. Dedicated personnel may be periodically tasked with cleaning and sanitizing contaminated or soiled surfaces and those with which food comes in contact.

Each of these major functions will influence the types and severity of the injuries that occur.  

Food technicians smiling at camera in a food processing plant

Why So Many MSDs in Food Production?  

In such a highly diversified industry sector, it’s not surprising that the injuries that occur are diverse as well. Overall, however, food industry workers had a 60 percent higher rate of non-fatal occupational illness and injury than workers in non-food industries and a lost-time injury rate more than twice as high.  

Each of the sub-sector injuries has its own set of risks for MSDs.  As can be seen from the table below, the highest total number of injuries from MSDs that required days away from work were in dairy product manufacturing, animal slaughtering and processing and bakeries and tortilla manufacturing.  By comparison, the highest incidence rates per 10,000 employees were in seafood product preparation and packaging, followed by dairy and bakery industries.  

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Strenuous activities in food processing include:

  • Reaching across a conveyor,
  • Lifting heavy loads,
  • Twisting
  • Bending at a work station,
  • Performing repetitive forceful tasks – especially involving the hand, wrist and arm
  • Working with hands in awkward positions

These strenuous activities create:

  • Muscle soreness and pain (especially in the lower back and shoulders)
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome (a repetitive motion injury to the wrists and hands)
  • Tendonitis (inflammation of the tendons)
  • Bursitis (inflammation of the fluid sacs in the joint)
  • Hernias
  • Ligament and tendon tears (usually from overexertion or repetitive motions).

Why do these strenuous activities cause these injuries? It all has to do with the way our bodies work. The shoulder has more force across the joint when the hand is working with the arm stretched out – with or without a load. The back wasn’t built to lift and twist at the same time – especially over and over again. The back isn’t the strongest when it is bent forward – either repetitively or for prolonged periods of time.  

The hand and wrist weren’t designed to do repetitive forceful gripping for hours at a time – often without adequate rest between each gripping motion.  And if you observe or videotape work functions in the food processing and production industries you’ll see the shoulders, back and wrists are subjected to these very stresses repeatedly.

Planning for profit in the food processing industry - Optimity Software

Not to mention…the forces exerted in the food production industry are impressive. Many of the grip forces exceed 60% of the grip force of the average female.  Add to these forces, working long hours, in cold environments, with a demanding production schedule and you have the “perfect storm” for producing injuries…

Find out more about the mechanisms of injuries in our food processing ebook

Slips, trips and falls are additional primary mechanisms of injuries in food processing.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, falls account for 15% of all fatalities, 25% of all non-fatal injuries, are associated with 95M lost work days, costing US employers $70 billion. And the problem isn’t decreasing.

For more information, contact Deborah Lechner, President ErgoScience, Inc.


Deborah Lechner

Written by Deborah Lechner

Deborah Lechner, ErgoScience President, combines an extensive research background with 25-plus years of clinical experience. Under her leadership, ErgoScience continues to use the science of work to improve workplace safety, productivity and profitability.