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Good working conditions for productive plant personnel

Intensive manual labour is usually not the most pleasant job in a poultry processing plant. Good conditions will make work more attractive, however. Not just that, good ergonomics will avoid physical problems and keep the staff motivated and productive.

By Fabio G. Nunes, poultry processing consultant, Brazil
It was about the end of WWII when the global poultry industry started acquiring its traits of organised, industrial activity. From there on it experienced an astonishing evolution in every single aspect of the business, markedly and specially after the 90’s. Advances in genetics, going hand in hand with those achieved in animal nutrition, contributed to convert the broilers of the past into modern, highly efficacious converters of vegetable raw material into nourishing animal protein.
Protected by the most modern bio-security and environment management techniques, the birds’ market age has been dramatically shortened from weeks to only days. All these improvements contributed to increasing the number of production cycles, or flocks, per year while, concomitantly, reducing the live production costs, thus leveraging the chicken meat affordability and consumption all over the world.
Automation strongly expanded
On the processing side of the business, the progress has been considerably quick. To cope with the increasing demand for chicken meat, processing plants dramatically expanded their processing capacities. Daily slaughter jumped from a few tens of thousand of birds a day to many hundreds of thousand of birds a day presently.
The growth experienced by the plants has been strongly supported by the ongoing, parallel, development of complex, specific machinery. This machinery has been gradually replacing the need for manual labour in those operations where its limited capability could no longer keep the pace with the increasing killing line speeds and/or to reduce the operational costs of the operation.
The rhythm and intensity of replacement of the manual work by machinery in the processing plants varies across countries, being higher in countries where the labour cost is expensive or the labour availability limited and lower in countries where neither the labour cost nor work force availability are meaningful constraints. Yet the degree of automation has been escalating, no matter which country or company one looks to, workmanship will not just remain important for the chicken processing business for the many years to come, as it will be virtually impossible to be fully replaced by machines.
Physical integrity affected
In the environment of the processing plant, from live hanging through to the shipment dock, the workers are subjected to a wide array of challenges, or risks, which may easily affect their physical integrity. These challenges, which come in the stream of increasingly higher production rates and advances in technology of the processing plants to remain competitive and stay in business, are:  Exerting excessive force.
·        Excessive repetition of movements that can irritate tendons and increase pressure on nerves.
·        Awkward postures, or unsupported positions that stretch physical limits, can compress nerves and irritate tendons.
·        Static postures, or positions that a worker must hold for long periods of time, can restrict blood flow and damage muscles.
·         Motion, such as increased speed or acceleration when bending and twisting, can increase the amount of force exerted on the body.
·         Compression, from grasping sharp edges like tool handles, can concentrate force on small areas of the body, reduce blood flow and nerve transmission, and damage tendons and tendon sheaths.
·         Inadequate recovery time due to overtime, lack of breaks, and failure to vary tasks can leave insufficient time for tissue repair.
·         Excessive vibration, usually from vibrating tools, can decrease blood flow, damage nerves, and contribute to muscle fatigue.
·         Whole-body vibration, from driving trucks or operating subways, can affect skeletal muscles and cause low-back pain.
·         Working in cold temperatures can adversely affect a worker’s coordination and manual dexterity and cause a worker to use more force than necessary to perform a task. These factors, isolated or combined, if coupled with poor machine design, tool, and workplace design or the use of improper tools, create a faster physical stress on workers’ bodies leading to injury on a shorter period of time.
Injuries and disorders
These risk factors, either alone or in combination, can subject workers’ shoulders, arms, hands, wrists, backs, and legs to thousands of repetitive twisting, forceful or flexing motions during a typical workday. To end up producing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), these physical stresses must be present for a sufficient duration, frequency, or magnitude. MSDs result from exposure to multiple risk factors that can cause or exacerbate the disorders, not from a single event or trauma such as a fall, collision, or entanglement.
Therefore, MSDs are known as injuries and disorders of the soft tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints and cartilage) and nervous system. They can affect nearly all tissues, including the nerves and tendon sheaths, and most frequently involve the arms and back. Occupational health and safety professionals have called these disorders a variety of names, including cumulative trauma disorders (CTD), repeated trauma (RT), repetitive stress injuries (RSI), and occupational over-exertion syndrome.
These painful and often disabling injuries generally develop gradually over weeks, months, and years of subjection of the body’s portion to the same stressing, risk factor. MSDs can cause a number of conditions, including pain, numbness, tingling, stiff joints, difficulty moving, muscle loss, and sometimes paralysis.
Frequently, workers must lose time from work to recover; some never regain full health. According to the Organizational Safety and Health Agency, OSHA, of the USA Department of Labor, these disorders include carpal tunnel syndrome; tendinitis (tendon inflammation); rotator cuff injuries (a shoulder problem); epicondylitis (sometimes called tennis or golfers’ elbow); trigger finger; and muscle strains and back injuries.

Study of work

It is worth mentioning that risk factors not related to the job, can cause or contribute to MSDs. These factors include: physical conditioning; medical conditions, such as obesity, diabetes and arthritis; pregnancy; hobbies that are hand intensive or require manual handling (in these instances, however, because one can control the duration and exposures, hobbies usually are not primary risk factors); and psychological or social workplace stress.

To avoid the occurrence of any of those MSDs, those challenges present at the work environment must be properly managed, mitigated or even eliminated. The proper treatment of these MSD-causing risks must be carried out by means of a science-based approach, known by ergonomics.

Ergonomics can be defined simply as the study of work. More specifically, ergonomics is the science of designing the job to fit the worker, rather than physically forcing the worker’s body to fit the job. Adapting tasks, work stations, tools, and equipment to fit the worker can help reduce physical stress on a worker’s body and eliminate many potentially serious, disabling work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Ergonomics draws on a number of scientific disciplines, including physiology, biomechanics, psychology, anthropometry, industrial hygiene, and kinesiology.
Four important points
The implementation of an effective ergonomics program in a poultry processing plant includes four important points:
1) A commitment by the employer to provide the visible interest and involvement of top management, so that all employees, from management to line workers, fully understand that management has a serious commitment to the program. A team approach, with top management as the team leader.
2) A written program for job safety and health and ergonomics that is endorsed and advocated by the highest level of management and that outlines the employer’s goals and plans. This written program should be suitable for the size and complexity of the workplace operations, and should permit these guidelines to be applied to the specific situation of each plant. The written program should be communicated to all personnel, as it encompasses the total workplace, regardless of number of workers employed or the number of work shifts. It should establish clear goals, and objectives to meet those goals, that are communicated to and understood by all members of the organisation.
3) A commitment by the employer to provide for and encourage employee involvement in the ergonomics program and in decisions that affect worker safety and health.
4) The evaluation of the implementation of the ergonomic program and the monitoring progress accomplished. Top management should review the program regularly to evaluate success in meeting its goals and objectives.
Embrace four elements
The programme above must embrace the following four major elements:
1) Worksite analysis
Worksite analysis identifies existing hazards, conditions, operations and work methods that create hazards, and areas where hazards may develop over time. This also includes close scrutiny and tracking of injury and illness records to identify patterns of traumas or strains that may indicate the development of illnesses (Figure 1).
2) Hazard prevention and control
Once ergonomic hazards are identified through the systematic worksite analysis discussed before, the next step is to design a set of single or multiple measures to prevent or control these hazards. Thus, a system for hazard prevention and control is the second major program element for an effective ergonomics program. Ergonomic hazards are prevented primarily by effective design of the workstation, tools and job methods. To be effective, an employer’s program should use appropriate engineering and work practice controls, personal protective equipment and administrative controls to correct or control ergonomic hazards;
3) Medical management
Implementation of a medical management system is the third major element in the employer’s ergonomics program. Proper medical management is necessary both to eliminate or materially reduce the risk of development of illnesses signs and symptoms through early identification and treatment and to prevent future problems through development of information sources.
Thus, an effective medical management program for illnesses is essential to the success of any employer’s ergonomics program. In an effective program, health care providers will be part of the ergonomic team, interacting and exchanging information routinely in order to prevent and properly treat the illnesses.
4) Training and education
The fourth major program element is training and education. The purpose of training and education is to ensure that employees are sufficiently informed about the ergonomic hazards to which they may be exposed and thus are able to participate actively in their own protection. Employees should be adequately trained about the employer’s ergonomics program.
Training and education are critical components of an ergonomics program for employees potentially exposed to ergonomic hazards. Training allows managers, supervisors, and employees to understand ergonomic and other hazards associated with a job or production process, their prevention and control, and their medical consequences.
Prevention pays
Finally, the MSDs extrapolate the work health safety context to become a serious economical problem, inflicting serious losses to the industry and to the government. In the USA, MSDs account for 34% of all lost-workday injuries and illnesses; employers report nearly 600,000 MSDs requiring time away from work every year. MSDs account for $1 of every $3 spent for workers’ compensation. MSDs each year account for more than $15 billion to $20 billion in workers’ compensation costs.
Total direct costs add up to as much as $50 billion annually; on average, it takes workers 28 days to recover from carpal tunnel syndrome, longer than the time needed to recover from amputation or fractures and last but not least, workers with severe injuries can face permanent disability that prevents them from returning to their jobs or handling simple, everyday tasks. Consider starting your own ergonomics program. It is never too late as prevention pays!
* References are available from the author


Fabio G. Nunes

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