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Musculoskeletal Injuries Persist at Chicken Processing Plant

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Duke Health News 919-660-1306

DURHAM, N.C. – Despite changes made at a chicken processing
plant in eastern North Carolina since being cited by state
inspectors in 1989, employees there continue to suffer from a
host of musculoskeletal injuries of the hands, arms and
neck.

Duke University Medical Center occupational medicine
researchers who conducted the latest study believe that the
pace and pressures of the work need to be reduced to protect
workers from injury. However, they added, a number of economic,
social and political factors could complicate these
efforts.

The researchers studied the Perdue Farms chicken plant in
Lewiston, N.C., whose approximately 2,500 workers process more
than 400,000 chickens a day. It is located in an economically
depressed area where there are few opportunities for
employment.

In the current study of 291 women, almost all of whom were
African-American, the researchers found high rates of pain and
disorders in their wrists, shoulders and forearms,
particularly, as well as increasing risk with increasing
exposure, according to Hester Lipscomb, Ph.D., associate
professor of occupational and environmental medicine at Duke
University and senior author of the study appearing in the
latest issue of the American Journal of Industrial
Medicine.

Levels of work exposure were based on the time the women
worked in the industry as well as the department in which they
worked. Women in the study came from a variety of jobs in the
plant, ranging from those performing lower-risk work such as
inspection to those doing high-risk activities such as gutting,
deboning and cutting up chickens.

In 2000, women from the community around the plant
approached Duke researchers because of continued concerns about
the health of the poultry workers.

"The women reported that their upper extremity problems were
often dismissed as being the result of obesity or child care
responsibilities or mental health problems," Lipscomb said.
"However, while the levels of obesity and depression are of
concern to us, our analysis found that these factors do not
explain the high incidence of musculoskeletal problems separate
from their work exposures and physical pathology."

The Duke team trained five women from the community to
recruit and interview the workers after hours and weekends
about their working conditions and physical symptoms. Trained
nurses performed the medical exams and all the data collected
was analyzed by Duke researchers. A total of 987 interviews and
physical exams were performed -- 291 at baseline and 696 at
follow-up.

Currently, no federal health and safety agencies regulate
line speeds of poultry plants. However, the U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA) sets maximal line speeds to ensure food
safety, without regard for worker safety.

"Since the USDA began setting line speeds in 1968, the pace
has increased from less than 20 birds a minute to the current
maximum of 91 birds a minute," Lipscomb said. "Reducing the
health exposures for these women in the current political
climate could be difficult, considering the occupational health
and safety guidelines are based on voluntary compliance."

Lipscomb also found that women who were worried about losing
their job during the first encounter with the study team were
more likely to be identified as having a new musculoskeletal
disorder at a follow-up visit.

"We hypothesize that women with high job insecurity may
continue to work despite symptoms and without seeking
treatment, which may lead to more serious disorders later,"
Lipscomb said. "The plant we examined is in a poor rural area
with an African-American majority population. The average pay
is eight dollars an hour, and even at that low rate, these are
considered some of the better paying jobs in the area."

Earlier published work from this study identified that the
poultry workers had significantly more musculoskeletal symptoms
than women in other low-wage jobs in the same geographic area
as well as more depressive symptoms.

Other authors of the current report include Kristen Kucera,
Carol Epling and John Dement. The study was supported by the
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the
National Institute of Arthritis, Musculoskeletal and Skin
Diseases.

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