Worker injuries bite into pork production profits

Safety research | Barn workers videotaped 
to examine how to prevent health problems

All that pinching, squeezing and clipping can take their toll on a pig producer, not to mention the lifting, bending and twisting.

Hog production has among the heaviest physical tasks in agriculture and is prone to a variety of injuries.

Many producers do a good job of tracking their animals’ performance but tend to overlook their own physical well-being.

According to recent research, this can have a direct bearing on a producer’s bottom line.

“We know the rates for injury in pork production are related to the risk factors,” says Catherine Trask of the University of Saskatchewan’s Canadian Centre for Health and Safety in Agriculture.

“We know the rates of injury in pork production are high. They’re high compared to other industries and they’re higher than we’d like them to be in order to make these businesses profitable.… Minimizing injuries is going to be a big part of loss prevention for this industry.”

Trask has spent the past six months conducting injury prevention projects at five intensive hog operations in Saskatchewan, including the Prairie Swine Centre. She identified problems, determined their magnitude and decided which ones were of the most concern.

Nineteen workers were videotaped for half an hour to two hours as they did specific tasks in the pig barns during breeding, feeding, treatments and vaccination, pressure washing, sorting and processing piglets and moving the dead.

She measured the weights that workers were lifting and handling and used a force gauge to measure push and pull forces.

The video was used to analyze different work cycles, such as how much time it took to process a piglet or complete breeding on a sow. Different postures and angles were also evaluated, along with the number of lifts, pushes and pulls a worker did and how much hand gripping occurred.

Ergonomics is the study of muscle health, she said, but it also studies overall system performance, looking at productivity and moving into economic efficiencies.

“It’s really about marrying these two concepts: health and productivity,” she said during the Swine Industry Symposium held in Saskatoon Nov. 13-14.

She said data specific to hog operations isn’t publicly available, but tracking occupational health and safety claims is one way to more accurately measure economic loss from musculoskeletal disorders.

“In Saskatchewan, about 30 percent of all WCB (Workers’ Compen-sation Board) claim’s costs across all industries are for musculoskeletal disorders, and in the year 2010 this meant about $68 million,” she said.

“That’s a lot of loss. That’s a lot of money to leave on the table.”

Trask’s studies in the five pig barns found that more than 90 percent of workers had musculoskeletal disorder symptoms.

The lower back was the most common area at 80 percent, followed by the hands at 57 percent and the neck and shoulders at 55 percent.

Almost three-quarters of workers suffered musculoskeletal disorders in more than one part of the body.

“It’s fair to ask, since this is worker reported pain and symptoms, whether this actually has an impact on the way workers do their work. They describe that it does.… Nearly 60 percent of people said symptoms somewhere in their body were preventing them from doing their regular work activities,” she said.

“At the end of the day, we know we want to increase revenue and de-crease loss. There’s an opportunity to decrease loss when it comes to injury rates if we can track it as closely and as well as we do the pig productivity.”

Trask wants safety to be a performance indicator in barns, alongside feed conversion ratios and other productivity measures.

“You could have really great productivity measures on the pig side and if your workers are getting injured left, right and centre, the loss would be too great to still have a great profit.”

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