Back to Basics, Injuries and Illness

Back to Basics: Meatpacking Hazards

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine OSHA’s standards for meatpacking.

Employees in the meatpacking industry are exposed to a number of different health and safety hazards on a regular basis. According to OSHA, these hazards include exposure to high noise levels, dangerous equipment, slippery floors, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), and hazardous chemicals. Workers also face biological hazards from handling live animals or exposures to blood or feces which can increase risk for diseases.

General hazards

Meat packing workers face many different kinds of hazards, and employers must comply with many different OSHA standards in order to keep their employees safe. Employees can be exposed to confined space hazards which can put them in danger of asphyxiation, engulfment, contact with moving or energized parts, and exposure to hazardous chemicals.

Workers can be exposed to electrical hazards, which can lead to electric shock, electrocution, fires, and explosions, and so proper lockout/tagout procedures are necessary to prevent injuries. Machine guarding is also essential in order to keep employees safe while using equipment in the meat packing process.

Those who work in meat packing have significantly higher rates of musculoskeletal injuries compared to national rates, says OSHA, and so it is essential to develop an effective ergonomics program. Employers must provide medical and first aid personnel and supplies that are proportionate to the present hazards. Early reporting and referral to a healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment of MSDs can limit injury severity, minimize the likelihood of permanent damage or disability, and reduce workers’ compensation claims.

In terms of facilities, meat packing plants require refrigerated process areas and warehouses to preserve meat, and so facilities with refrigeration systems should develop safety management systems to identify and control hazards. Additionally, OSHA requires that exit routes be free and unobstructed, with no materials or equipment placed, neither permanently nor temporarily, within the exit route. The exit must not go through a room that can be locked to reach an exit or exit discharge, nor may it lead into a dead-end corridor, and stairs or a ramp must be provided where the exit route is not substantially viable.

Employers must provide their workers with training and personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, safety glasses, shoes, earplugs or muffs to deal with noise hazards, hard hats, respirators, coveralls, vests, and full body suits.

Biological agents

According to OSHA, meat processing workers are exposed to biological agents during slaughter, the handing of freshly slaughtered meat, and while working with ill animals. These exposures can cause health issues such as skin infections, flu, gastrointestinal infections that cause vomiting or diarrhea, and more serious infections such as pneumonia, meningitis, and sepsis. OSHA says that slaughterhouse and meat packing employees have higher levels of antibodies to biological agents like influence and staphylococcus aureus, but one of the main concerns are exposures to biological agents that a resistant to antibiotics, such as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Meat and poultry processing workers are reported to have an increased risk for lung cancer, which is perhaps due to exposure to oncogenic, or cancer-related, viruses and chemicals involved in processing and packaging. Some other specific diseases and biological agents of concern include the following:

  • Brucellosis – a bacterial infection with symptoms such as fever, mild headaches, muscle aches, severe diarrhea, and vomiting that can be transmitted by both wild and domesticated animals through direct contact or inhalation of infected aerosol.
  • Influenza – viruses including the seasonal flu and pandemic flu, it can be transmitted from animals to humans and can be combated by employees receiving the seasonal flu vaccine and pandemic flu vaccines when applicable.
  • LA-MRSA – livestock-associated MRSA, it causes skin and soft tissue infections, and it has been found in farmers who have direct contact with cattle and pigs.
  • Q Fever – a bacterial infection caused by Coxiella burnetii from exposure to infected animals, the symptoms include fever, headache, muscle aches, and cough, and it can sometimes lead to pneumonia or hepatitis.

Employers should implement safe work practices to prevent infections by providing workers with the appropriate PPE, including waterproof gloves, facemasks, and goggles, depending on the tasks being performed. Workers must be trained on biological hazards, symptom recognition, use of PPE, and hand hygiene practices.

Hazardous chemicals

In meat packing plants, workers are exposed to hazardous chemicals, including those on cleaning crews. Depending on the chemical, these exposures can cause skin rashes, eye, nose, and throat irritation, burns to the skin and eyes from splashes, cough, shortness of breath, and other symptoms, says OSHA.

Chemicals in the meat packing industry include ammonia, chlorine, carbon dioxide, hydrogen peroxide, and peracetic acid. Ammonia may be used for refrigeration and can cause irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract. Chlorine is used as a disinfectant that is sometimes added to water for disinfecting meat, and it may cause respiratory irritation and breathing problems.

Carbon dioxide is used to keep meat cold in the form of dry ice, and inhaling it can cause an increase in the breathing rate, which can then progress to shortness of breath, dizziness, and vomiting. Hydrogen peroxide is sometimes used as a disinfectant, and it can cause eye, nose, and respiratory inflammation. Peracetic acid can also be used as another disinfectant, and it has been associated with respiratory irritation. Employers should reference OSHA’s chemical hazards and toxic substances standard when dealing with these hazards.

Hazard control measures

OSHA recommends several hazard control measures to deal with the risks in the meatpacking industry. These measures include implementing the following:

  • An ergonomics program
  • A hearing conservation program
  • Design and maintenance of electrical systems
  • A lockout/tagout program
  • OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard requirements

Once again, employers must provide required PPE, and follow OSHA’s process safety management standard to protect workers from accidental leaks of ammonia. Engineering controls, such as improving sanitation and ventilation measures, should be incorporated to protect workers from chemical and biological hazards.

Walking and working surfaces must be maintained to prevent slips, trips, and falls, and dangerous equipment should be guarded. Exit doors must not be blocked or locked while employees are in the building, and they must be able to open an exit route door from the inside at all times without keys, tools, or special knowledge. Lastly, employers must comply with OSHA’s sanitation standard that requires that toilet facilities be readily available for the workers to use when needed.

For more information on meatpacking hazards, click here.