Profiles in Safety and Health: Occupational Hazards of Meatpacking

Article excerpt

Martin E. Personick is an economist in the Division of Safety and Health Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Katherine Taylor-Shirley, an economist in the same division, prepared the data and analysis included from the Supplementary Data System.

Injury and illness rates in manufacturing are above the average for the total economy; within the manufacturing sector, some individual industry rates, such as those in meatpacking, are two to three times the all-manufacturing average


"Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure

I'd face it as a wise man would,

And train for ill and not for good."

-Alfred Edward Housman

A Shropshire Lad (1896)

As in Housman's day, some still point to "luck and chance" as culturally acceptable explanations of accidents. But, few view injuries and illnesses in the workplace in that way-namely, as inevitably beyond human control and influence. Unlike "natural" disasters, most types of industrial accidents and occupational diseases now are considered preventable-through classroom and on-the-job training and by following safety and health standards and procedures prescribed by government, industry, and labor. Safeguards on machines and equipment, for example, and scientifically established limits on exposure levels for hazardous substances, when implemented, have helped to control the proliferation of accidents and disease in the workplace.

Despite these improvements, a 1986 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey found some 3,600 work-related fatalities and 5.6 million occupational injuries and illnesses among the 83 million private sector workers covered by the survey. Fully one-third of the injuries and illnesses occurred in manufacturing industries -a sector employing slightly more than one-fifth of the survey's total work force. This article-covering the meatpacking industry-is the first in a BLS series focusing on specific industries experiencing a high incidence of injuries and illnesses.

High-risk industries

Historically, safety and health risks associated with manufacturing processes have been higher than those for the total private sector. Reflecting this, job-related injuries and illnesses occurred at the rate of 10.6 per 100 full-time workers in manufacturing industries, compared with 7.9 for the total private sector during 1986. (See appendix for work injury definitions used in the Bureau of Labor Statistics survey of this subject.) Moreover, there is considerable range among manufacturing industries, with some individual industry rates two to three times as high as the all-manufacturing average.

Charts 1 and 2 array such high-risk manufacturing industries according to two different, but related, criteria: (1) the incidence rate for all recordable injuries and illnesses, and (2) the incidence rate for injuries severe enough to require workers to take time off from work or to be restricted in work activity. 2 Seven industries appear on both arrays of the 10 high-risk industries in 1986.

Their order, however, varies by the criterion used. For example, meatpacking plants rank first, and vitreous china plumbing fixtures, tenth, for industry incidence rates of injuries and illnesses (chart 1); their rankings are nearly reversed (eighth and first) using only injury rates for lost workday cases (chart 2). By way of partial explanation, 75 percent of all injuries in plumbing fixtures result in lost worktime, compared with 45 percent of injuries in meatpacking. And, as noted later in this article, the incidence of illnesses, apart from injuries, is much higher in meatpacking than in other high-risk industries.

The Bureau's annual survey identifies high-risk industries but does not provide information about the characteristics of their occupational injuries and illnesses.3 Such information is available, to some extent, from another Bureau program -the Supplementary Data System (SDS), which covered 23 States in 1985. …