Thursday, November 25, 2004

Repetitive Stress in Wallula: Injuries Happen

This is a good, but ultimately unsatisifying article. It's full of valuable facts and tragic stories about how repetitive tasks are wreaking havoc on the arms and shoulder of mostly immigrant workers at a Tyson's meatpacking plant in Wallula, Washington:
When [Amir Mustafic, 27] moved to the Tri-Cities from Bosnia six years ago, he took a job at Wallula because he had family working there. With almost no English, he didn't think he could find another job that paid as well.

His job as the aitch boner involves pulling a section of rump meat from a passing conveyor belt with a hook, carving the bone out, then passing the piece down the line while cleaning remaining meat from the bone.

He's done this four to five times per minute, five days a week, for the past five years.

"I've felt a lot of pain a lot of times," Mustafic said in a May interview. "Right now I feel it. It's kind of tingly in my hands, from my elbow to my fingers -- actually, my shoulders to my fingers. It wakes me up every morning at 7 o'clock." Like Hernandez, Mustafic said the company stresses proper work practices to workers who complain of chronic pain.

"They say you have to sharpen your knife good, you have to use it good," he said. "They try to explain to people how to hold the hook in the hand. But it doesn't help if people have hard jobs and they go too fast."
And some good discussion about what's causing the problem:

Analysis of injury logs filed with the federal government show that in 2002, Wallula workers were taken off their jobs for injuries or illnesses at a rate that was 2.5 times higher than the national average for meatpacking plants --
and 10 times the average rate for American workplaces overall.

Logs from past years also show reported injuries have increased since Tyson Foods, the nation's largest meat company, took over the Wallula plant with its purchase of IBP Inc. in 2001, according to a University of Massachusetts study. Union leaders claim it's because of increased pressure to speed production. Company officials say it's because more injuries are being reported because Tyson has placed greater emphasis on safety.


[Since Tysons bought the plant in 2001] some workers say they've seen fairer treatment from supervisors, more emphasis on safety and more acceptance of workers who report injuries, pain or other problems. But other workers agree with Teamsters Local 556 officials, who say Tyson has increased workloads without increasing the number of staff. That, they say, has led to short-staffed workers being overwhelmed -- and causing more injuries and ergonomics problems.

[Fernando Hernandez, 47, of Pasco] said since Tyson took over he's seen a trend toward reducing workers at each station on the line. At his position, he said, there used to be 11 to 12 workers, but Tyson reduced that to seven or eight.

"Everything's faster," he said. "You need to make the cuts faster. Your hands start to hurt faster because you're making your movements faster."

But then, without any supporting evidence, Tri Cities Herald writer Jeff St. John comes out with statements like this, clearly garnered from industry propaganda:
It is notoriously difficult to pinpoint the cause of such injuries, and workers and employers can have different views on whether long-developing medical conditions are caused by what people do at work.
Despite stories like this:
But Margarita Carrasco, 53, can't imagine what she could have done outside of her seven-year job at the Wallula plant to cause the problems that have led to four surgeries in the past three years.

Carrasco, originally from Jalisco, Mexico, has long, thin white scars up and down her right arm from numerous surgeries. She's had two pins and a metal bar implanted in her right forearm, but they haven't been able to restore use of her right hand -- her knife hand.

Her right wrist first started to hurt several years ago when she was working at the "trim knuckles" position, flipping over 7-pound pieces of meat and cutting out a central bone using tight, circular knife cuts. After she developed sharp, stabbing pains in her arm, she went to the company nurse and then to a doctor, who recommended surgery. The first surgery helped, and Carrasco returned to work on light duty for six to eight months. Then she returned to the trim knuckle job, and six months later she noticed a nodule forming in her right wrist. Then the pain returned. "It was a feeling like your hand was asleep," she said.

The pain persisted and spread down her forearm, so she went to the nurse and got another doctor's appointment. That led to another surgery, and the metal bar in her arm.

"My arm is now forever useless," Carrasco said in Spanish during an interview at her Pasco home. She can't write on a flat surface or hold a spoon with her right hand, and now uses her left hand to brush her hair in the morning.
Finally, no mention is made of the late, great Washington state ergonomics standard that was repealed in a scurrilous industry-funded campaign last year.

Because without an ergonomics standard, several things happen. More workers get hurt, people outside the workplace are confused about what causes the injuries, and employers have less incentive to educate themselves about the issue or to do anything real about the problem.

It means you get quotes like this:
[Plant manager Ray] McGaugh acknowledged accidents are bound to happen, and said ergonomics injuries are statistically inevitable in meatpacking work. In some cases, he said, workers need to be told they're not physically suited to the difficult work. But he rejected the contention that company policies or working conditions have made the Wallula plant more dangerous.


Ergonomic-related problems account for about 40 percent of all recordable injuries at the plant, McGaugh said, but because they develop slowly, workers and supervisors are trained to watch for them. Improvements in the past several years have brought fewer medical problems, he said.

McGaugh also stressed the plant's "neighborhood safety watch program," instituted at the beginning of this year, which encourages both workers and supervisors to watch for unsafe acts.

"Safety is an evolution," he said. "When you have a household of 1,800 people, you have to rely on each other. Too many times, team members rely on management for safety."
Translation: Injuries happen, workers may want to rely on management to eliminate unsafe workplace conditions (by putting more workers back on the line, changing the physical layout of the line, and reducing the weight that workers have to lift), but our plan eliminates inuries by having workers report on other workers' "unsafe actions."

Anyone out there in Washington want to give this Mr. St. John a call? Compliment him for good covereage of an important issue, but fill him in on a little of the politics behind it all. After all, your probably next governor -- Dino Rossi -- (by 42 votes) has major support by the lie-spewing terminator of your ergonomics standard, the Building Industry Association of Washington who see Rossi's election as a "big 'Fuck you!' to all the liberals out there."