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Comparing Worker Safety Concerns

Agriculture is still considered to be among the nation's most dangerous industries. John Shutske, University of Minnesota Farm Safety and Health Specialist, frequently gets phone calls from people seeking basic information about how to prevent injuries and illnesses on their farms.Shutske and graduate student, Ruth Tripp, designed a study in cooperation with National Hog Farmer to help understand

Agriculture is still considered to be among the nation's most dangerous industries. John Shutske, University of Minnesota Farm Safety and Health Specialist, frequently gets phone calls from people seeking basic information about how to prevent injuries and illnesses on their farms.

Shutske and graduate student, Ruth Tripp, designed a study in cooperation with National Hog Farmer to help understand more about health and safety information needs of the pork industry.

Shutske emphasizes this project was not intended to be a comprehensive, pork-industry-wide survey. A leading Midwestern hog state, Minnesota (ranking third, nationally), was compared with North Carolina, a state known for large-scale pork production units employing significant numbers of people. The results of the research indicated a growing number of larger pork producers are seeking basic health and safety information for their employees. Interest in developing sound worker safety and health programs is on the rise.

Producers who are proactive about safety and health often end up with healthier workers, and gain a variety of benefits from reduced employee turnover and absenteeism.

This research project was designed to answer several broad questions:

What types of injuries and illnesses are employers most concerned about?

What kinds of injuries and illnesses are employers actually observing in their workplaces?

How many employers are providing planned safety and health training for their workers?

How do the health and safety needs of employers change as their operations grow and they employ more people?

Who should deliver health and safety information to employers and employees?

The researchers were attempting to better understand the regional differences in occupational health and safety needs among pork producers who were believed to have employees. A random sample of 600 pork producers, divided between Minnesota and North Carolina, was selected from the National Hog Farmer mailing list.

Minnesota and North Carolina were chosen as the states to be surveyed because of differences in overall production systems and intensity, as well as differences in employment patterns. It was believed North Carolina producers may have already experienced some of the employee health and safety concerns that Minnesota producers are just beginning to see. Health and safety issues may increase in Minnesota as reliance on hired workers grows.

Survey Results Employers in both states reported experiencing costs associated with employee injuries and accidents. In addition, they reported a growing concern about accident and injury levels among workers.

The five most common problem categories reported in both states were: cuts; strains and sprains; being stuck by a hypodermic needle; back and neck pain; and slips and falls. Table 1 shows the percentage of operations in both Minnesota and North Carolina that had costs related to injuries and illnesses.

Although "cuts" might seem like a relatively minor problem, the incidence of infection can cause more problems. Cuts may get contaminated by manure and a variety of bacteria (sometimes antibiotic resistant bacteria). Employers need to identify which tasks run the highest risk of employees being cut. Gloves or proper shoes could be somewhat helpful in preventing cuts, Shutske suggests.

The incidence of needlesticks in the pork industry appears to be a problem that warrants further prevention efforts. Reactions from accidentally injected medications, or potential infection are the main concerns from sticking injuries.

Shutske was surprised that needlestick problems ranked so high. "Hospitals and clinics have gone to great efforts to develop programs and facilities for managing needlestick problems," he says. "Perhaps better training could help reduce the problem in hog operations as well."

Back injuries and back pain are common in most labor-intensive industries. "Employers do need to be concerned about these seemingly routine injuries because they cause a disproportionate level of employee absenteeism and they are a huge contributor to workers compensation insurance costs," Shutske says. "Back injuries are at least one-third more expensive than all other types of worker's compensation claims and account for more than 30% of all claims in all industries." The National Safety Council reports the average, lost-time, back injury claim was $24,080 in 1990.

Employees should be trained in proper lifting techniques (lift with knees bent, back fairly straight, etc.) to reduce back strains and sprains. Producers should consider use of tools that make lifting tasks easier. Lifting feed in smaller quantities or partial bags can also help reduce the likelihood of injuries.

Keeping objects picked up and out of the way to eliminate the possibility of tripping is one way to help reduce slips and falls. Shutske says, when possible, aisles should be designed to make it easier for people to move around. Good work shoes/boots that provide good traction and flooring that offers enough traction could help. Keeping aisles clean and dry could also reduce hazards.

North Carolina employers voiced slightly more concern about worker safety and health compared to Minnesota employers (Table 2). The difference was more apparent among smaller scale producers with fewer than 11 employees.

Shutske speculates that North Carolina producers may be more concerned because they are subject to a higher level of regulatory activity. Some 25% of the surveyed producers in North Carolina reported having been inspected by an Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) representative at least once. Only 5.1% of the surveyed Minnesota producers had been subjected to an OSHA inspection.

Among the Minnesota producers who purchase worker's compensation insurance, 21% indicated worker's compensation costs were increasing. Nineteen percent of the North Carolina producers who purchase worker's compensation insurance noted an increase.

Shutske says worker's compensation rates for a particular industry reflect the losses experienced within that industry. However, individual employers can often get lower rates if they maintain a clean, claim-free record. These discounts vary across state lines, and by specific insurance provider.

"In most areas of the country, worker's compensation providers are eager to work with their clients to prevent losses, and can be a great source of safety and health information," Shutske says. Worker's compensation insurance providers can provide training materials or referrals to safety consultants.

Shutske notes survey respondents were more concerned about injuries and illnesses if they had experienced some type of problem (Table 3). "This increased level of concern is often just simple human nature," he says. "Employers who have not yet experienced a costly injury or occupational illness need help to be proactive, rather than waiting for something bad and costly to occur."

What are producers doing to train their workers about preventing injury and illness?

Shutske says 41.9% of Minnesota employers surveyed reported offering some type of planned worker safety training to address issues like respiratory protection, animal-handling techniques, safe lifting, and basic first aid. Producers providing workers with training was higher in North Carolina (54.9%).

Training is less common among smaller employers in both states. See Table 4 for an overview of the type of training being provided in both Minnesota and North Carolina.

Regardless of minimum regulatory requirements, employers should provide periodic, structured worker training. "It is a good idea to cover at least one or two priority topic areas monthly," Shutske suggests. "Workers trained in proper techniques and procedures will not only have fewer occupational safety and health problems, but they will also likely be more productive and efficient."

The data from this survey suggests additional training is required in the areas of using personal protective equipment, safe lifting techniques, proper use of hypodermic needles for medications and vaccines, and proper footwear and housekeeping to prevent slips and falls.

"Over the years, we have also collected farm fatality data that suggests producers need to develop training programs and written policies that outline the proper procedures for entering confined spaces (like manure pits and bins) and for proper operations of powered equipment such as augers, feeding systems and tractors," Shutske says.

Farms with more than 10 employees are subject to OSHA inspections in most states. Training and efforts to eliminate hazards forms a foundation for regulatory compliance on these eligible farms.

"An employer with a solid, well-documented, and accurate worker training program will be viewed in a positive light by OSHA, since training is often viewed as a 'good-faith' effort in showing concern for employees," Shutske adds. "If possible, it is better to eliminate a hazardous situation in your operation than to train employees to work around it."

Shutske and Tripp also asked producers where they would like to receive occupational safety and health training. Veterinarians were viewed as preferred sources of information. Insurance companies, safety consultants, the extension service and pork production magazines were also popular sources.

Survey results showed large pork industry employers in Minnesota are relying much more heavily on paid safety consultants as compared to their larger counterparts in North Carolina. Producers of all sizes in North Carolina are slightly more likely to use the free, consultation services of OSHA.

OSHA services vary by state, but can be used as an inexpensive way to supplement an existing worker safety/health program. A farm employer requesting an OSHA consultation will receive a free inspection with specific recommendations made by the consultant.

"Even though the consultant is generally not allowed to levy fines or penalties during the consultation process, there is an expectation that specific problem areas identified in the inspection will be corrected," Shutske cautions. Producers should check with their state department of labor about available inspection services and procedures.