Accidents and repetitive strain contribute to serious injuries
Most people don’t think that much about how their food got to their table. It’s possible that whoever does most of the cooking in your home thinks a lot about where to shop, what to buy, and how to prepare the meals, but they might not often consider the people who are tasked with raising and processing the animals that will ultimately become your dinner.
However, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that in mid-2020, there were 240,255 workers in poultry processing and 143,354 workers in other animal processing (not poultry).
Marshall County, Alabama; Hall County, Georgia; and Rockingham County, Virginia, had the highest numbers of poultry processing employees in the nation.
The human costs of poultry production
When we think of dangerous jobs, we tend to imagine the “obvious,” like mining, forestry, trucking and similar. But poultry processing workers spend their shifts using sharp tools for cutting, machines that package meat, and other equipment that can be dangerous. These workers suffer non-fatal injuries at a rate of about 4.2 per 100 full-time equivalent (FTE) workers, which is higher than the average of 2.9 per 100 for all private industries.
In many of these cases, the injuries are not the results of a specific accident or incident. Many poultry workers suffer from repetitive motion injuries, like carpal tunnel, from hanging poultry or using knives in a specific way.
In fact, the BLS reported that poultry processing workers have about 13.3 cases per 10,000 FTEs of days away from work for repetitive motion injuries, while the average private industry is 2.1 per 10,000.
This is such a widespread and pervasive problem in the poultry industry that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published an entire manual geared specifically toward protecting workers from musculoskeletal injuries in poultry processing.
Common types of poultry processing injuries
Repetitive motion injuries (RMIs)
A repetitive motion injury results over time from performing a task again and again. This includes carpal tunnel syndrome, which is more than 7 times more common among poultry workers than the national average. Other repetitive motion injuries include tendinitis, trigger finger and epicondylitis. These conditions can arise from using tools like split saws and knives.
Poultry packing plants often have slippery floors because there are fast-moving conveyor belts with chicken immersed in water that can splash onto the walking areas. There can also be scraps of fat that can create wet surfaces. Any number of injuries can happen as the result of a fall, including bruises, hip fractures, broken bones, spinal cord injuries, and head and brain injuries.
Heavy lifting injuries
Lifting, stacking, loading. Workers must haul heavy boxes onto pallets, and this often involves twisting their bodies, extending their arms, using their shoulders, and straining their lower back. Some workers who engage in these activities develop herniated discs, strain injuries or torn rotator cuffs. Sometimes, the damage over time from these types of injuries can restrict a person’s ability to continue to work or function without pain.
A biohazard (or biological hazard) is related to illnesses or diseases a person could contract from exposure to organic material like bacteria in an animal’s blood or feces. A poultry worker could fall ill from avian influenza (bird flu), salmonella, Campylobacter, psittacosis or other bacteria or viruses.
Many meat and poultry plants use ammonia as a refrigerant. Breathing in fumes from ammonia can cause lung damage in the long term. Another chemical called peracetic acid (PAA) is often sprayed on poultry to kill bacteria. This can cause eye, nose and throat irritation to workers.
Assembly line injuries
There are 2 frequent categories of injuries seen in workers on poultry assembly lines.
One is that people can suffer injury from standing for long periods of time with infrequent breaks. Extended standing can result in back, leg, and foot injuries, along with circulation issues.
Second, many poultry workers are on high-speed assembly lines, and they suffer cuts, caught-between accidents, and other injuries from accidents that happen because of performing physical tasks alongside or using high-speed equipment.
Hearing impairment injuries
Hearing loss in the workplace is more frequent than you might think. Heavy machinery produces a lot of noise, and this can cause tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and even permanent hearing loss. One study found that more than 80 percent of the meat plants evaluated had higher levels of noise than what OSHA considers to be hazardous.
Workers’ compensation for injured poultry workers
Most employers (the only exceptions in most states are employers with a very small number of employees) are required to have workers’ compensation insurance for each worker.
The workers’ compensation system provides an injured worker with no-fault insurance. That means, unlike a personal injury lawsuit, you don’t need to prove that anyone was negligent or at fault for your injury. You only need to prove 3 things:
- There was an actual injury;
- The injury happened while you were at your workplace or elsewhere performing duties related to your job; and
- The injury resulted in financial costs for medical treatment, lost wages or other expenses.
This can sometimes be trickier than it sounds because of the burden of proving that a repetitive motion injury, strain injury, back or neck problems, hearing loss, or other issues that happen over time (instead of from a specific accident) can be difficult. You would need to be able to show that there was no other way that you could have developed the injury other than through your job.
Your lawyer will review your medical history, how long you’ve been at the job, how many hours a day you’re exposed to a condition that could cause the symptoms, and other factors that would provide evidence that the injury was caused by your job.
Workers’ compensation benefits
Depending on the state where you live and work, workers’ compensation benefits could vary. However, in most states, benefits include:
- Costs for medical treatment, including future or ongoing therapies
- A percentage of your lost wages during recovery, along with disability payments if you’re unable to return to work in the same capacity as prior to the injury
- Transportation to medical appointments
- Job retraining if you need to return to a different role or different job
- Survivor benefits for the family of a worker who dies as a result of their job
3rd-party liability for a poultry processing worker accident
There are limited instances when a workers’ compensation claim might not be the appropriate remedy for a poultry worker’s accident or injury.
One of these circumstances is if the injury was caused by a defect in the equipment.
You can file a 3rd-party liability lawsuit if your injury was caused by the negligence of someone other than the employer or a fellow employee, like the equipment manufacturer.
An equipment malfunction could lead to a product liability lawsuit if it’s the result of a defect. You can read more on Enjuris.com about product liability claims.
The significant difference between a 3rd-party liability lawsuit and a workers’ compensation claim is that if your injuries are severe or require long-term treatment, the damages you could recover from a lawsuit could be more comprehensive than the benefits available under the workers’ compensation system.
For instance, workers’ compensation benefits do not include pain and suffering or other types of non-economic damages. You also would be entitled to a certain percentage of your lost wages, as opposed to the possibility of a lawsuit’s recovering costs for the total amount of your financial losses.
However, a workers’ compensation claim usually is resolved faster than a lawsuit, and you would begin to receive benefits sooner, allowing you to pay your bills and expenses right away. A lawsuit could take years, and even then, you don’t know if you’ll win or how much. In the meantime, your medical bills could be mounting, and you might not have an income if your injuries left you unable to work.
What to do if you’ve suffered an injury as a poultry plant worker
If you suffered an injury from a specific accident or incident, you must notify your manager or supervisor right away. It’s crucial that they’re informed. Each state has different reporting requirements and timeframes for reporting, so it’s a good idea to know what your reporting guidelines are before you’re injured. If you don’t know, err on the side of reporting promptly.
Next, get a medical evaluation and treatment. Certainly, this comes 1st (before reporting) if there’s an emergency. Don’t hesitate to call 911 or have a coworker make the call on your behalf. Your safety and health are the utmost priority.
If it’s not an emergency, it’s still crucial to have an immediate medical exam. This can be the key to proving that your injury exists and that it was caused by your work environment.
You should also consider calling a workers’ compensation lawyer to determine your best course of action and how to file a claim. If the injury is serious and will require future treatment or extended time off from work, it’s especially important to consult with an expert. That’s because once you accept a settlement offer from a workers’ compensation insurer, there’s no going back—you won’t have the opportunity to ask for more money if your expenses add up to more than you anticipated.
Your lawyer will work with medical, financial and actuarial experts to make sure that the settlement offer is enough to cover your allowable expenses both now and in the future, and they can advise you on whether you have additional legal options for financial recovery.
You can use the Enjuris law firm directory to find a workers’ compensation lawyer near you.
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