The recent meat recall at XL Foods Inc. in Brooks, Alberta is not wanting in superlatives.
It is one of the most massive meat recalls in Canadian history involving one of the country's largest beef packing plants that processes more than 4,000 head of cattle a day. Meat tainted with E. coli sickened a four-year-old boy and numerous others, resulting in the facility being shut down for a month and thousands of workers laid off.
Management of the beleaguered plant, owned by Brian and Lee Nilsson — brothers with a family tradition of ranching — has since been taken over by JBS USA, a leading animal protein processor in the United States and Australia.
Media coverage of this incident has focused primarily on public food safety. Justifiably so, considering that the meat processed by XL Foods is shipped to more than a dozen countries. But little has been said or heard about the invisible, voiceless workers — many of whom are temporary and foreign — toiling behind the walls of the plant. What are the occupational health and safety risks they are exposed to when handling pathogen-tainted meat that sickened so many?
A summary of non-compliances compiled by the Canada Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) at XL Foods noted multiple deficiencies in sanitation and maintenance: grease build-up and blood clots on the evisceration table; broken eye/handwash tap; large amounts of fat and meat build-up throughout; water pooling on the floors; a foul odour from a drain near the rendering room; condensation on the kill floor and in the offal hallway dripping onto boxed products; antimicrobial dripping onto rusty pipe and products; improper airflow at the processing floor; and bung bags in contact with a sink.
"This is dirty, dangerous work even in the best of circumstances," says Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour in Edmonton. "It is clear to us that there are both food safety problems and work safety problems at the Brooks packing plant and in many cases, the two are related."
Bob Jackson, regional executive-vice president for British Columbia with Public Service Alliance of Canada in Vancouver, says work conditions in meatpacking facilities and slaughterhouses are "almost indescribable" at times. "There has always been hazards involved in this line of work, just the environmental conditions that people are put into. You are dealing with heat, humidity, constant alerts around moving equipment and slippery floors," says Jackson, who was a former meat inspector.
Workers face a risk of direct exposure to pathogens by being in contact with contaminants that are aerosolized when handling carcasses stained with blood, feces and bodily fluids in a steamy environment with temperatures routinely reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit with almost 100 per cent humidity, Jackson notes.
While workers are provided with personal protective equipment, they may not be utilized to the fullest extent, considering the discomfort of donning additional clothing, hard hats and goggles that can steam up under such conditions. "You can imagine what that might feel like in terms of real world protection," he adds, noting that it was quite routine to see workers not wearing the necessary protective gear.
"It is up to management in these facilities to ensure their employees are taking proper precautions and sometimes, the management is not totally on top of it," Jackson suggests.
One-third of the 2,200 employees at XL Foods comprise temporary foreign workers, although that number fluctuates. Finding workers has been a chronic problem in meatpacking facilities, particularly in isolated communities such as Brooks, a two-hour drive from Calgary.
"There are many days when Brooks simply did not have enough people on the line to maintain speed," McGowan notes. "And that has obvious implications for both food safety and workplace safety, because inexperienced workers tend to be more vulnerable to workplace accidents and they are also less likely to be familiar with food safety protocols."
He reports conversations with plant workers who say line speeds are too fast for them to keep up. "On average, they are dealing with about 260 carcasses every hour, which does not give them enough time to follow safety protocols, but also increase[s] the likelihood of injuries when it comes to the use of their knives and also puts what we would describe as undue stress on their bodies."
Through the years, technology and mechanization have shaped how work is being done in meatpacking facilities. When Jackson started working in the industry back in the '80s, he recalls handling up 40 to 50 carcasses every hour. While there is a lot more mechanization today to perform some of the functions, he says it is "an incredible speed requirement," citing poultry carcasses going by on an evisceration line at two or three birds a second.
"It becomes almost impossible to do a proper job, to do it safely, to make sure that your equipment is properly sanitized in between carcasses, that people are given opportunities to ensure their tools and equipment are in top shape," Jackson contends. Blunt knives, which require the use of greater force, also increases the likelihood of cuts should the knife slip. "If you are trying to incise lymph nodes with a knife for instance, you have to do it at a speed that will allow you to keep up," he adds. "Your brain is spinning at that speed trying to concentrate on doing any kind of a real function."
Line specialization also means that workers are performing the same movements hundreds of times for hours each day, putting them at an elevated risk of repetitive strain injuries, notes Dr. Amy Fitzgerald, assistant professor in the department of sociology, anthropology and criminology at the University of Windsor in Ontario.
While different estimates have been made on the speed of lines, which varies depending on the slaughterhouse, the most commonly-used estimates are those in larger facilities that process 400 head of cattle an hour. "Based on the estimates I have seen, the line speeds in North America are said to be double of what they are in Europe," Dr. Fitzgerald says.
"Line speeds are based on a very complex arrangement of factors," Jackson notes, citing considerations that include physical constraints of the plant, workers' profile and level of training, the type of livestock being processed and the condition of animals when they come into the facility.
Doug Powell, professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine's department of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, concurs that line speed is a factor in safety, "but not a concern if attention is being paid to worker and microbial safety."
Food safety management systems incorporate a series of hurdles in the processing system, which contributes to a cumulative decrease in the possibility and number of pathogens present in the food supply, notes information from the CFIA. Hot water and steam pasteurization, application of organic acids and evaluation of the safety and efficacy of antibacterial agents prior to application are among the measures used.
Should a line speed surpass a worker's capacity to effectively perform the requisite food safety functions, inspectors and veterinarians appointed by the agency have the authority to order an immediate cessation of production. "Federally-registered meatpacking and processing establishments must satisfy all requisite occupational health and safety requirements," says Ronald Davidson, government and media relations director with the Canadian Meat Council in Ottawa.
Line speed is intrinsically tied to the stunning of animals, which has a bearing on worker safety. Animals that are improperly stunned thrash about as they are being hoisted, presenting a significant risk to the sticker, who has to cut the throat of the beast weighing hundreds of pounds.
"There has been many incidents where animals from a wide variety of species are not stunned adequately," Jackson points out, adding that this was a frequent occurrence even before high line-speeds came into the picture. He describes scenarios in which animals that escape the stunning process end up on the kill floor alive and running around.
In the poultry business where stunning is largely mechanized through electrocution, "there are many incidents of animals not being stunned before going into the scalding process for instance, so there is the inhumane aspect as well as the safety aspect," Jackson notes.
However, that does not mean workers can let their guard down when handling a properly-stunned animal. Chris Fuller, general manager with Alleghany Meats in Monterey, Virginia cautions that even an immobile or unconscious animal is dangerous to approach as its nervous system is still reacting. "There is a lot of thrashing and a lot of movement still," Fuller describes. "You have to be very diligent in the way you approach them and making sure that you are keeping yourself safe when you do so."
Workers should watch out for signs of improper stunning by looking at the side of the animal to see if there is ribneck breathing. Blinking of the eyes is another indicator. In such cases, the animal needs to be restunned before it is killed. "That is proper procedure through the entire industry."
There is also the mental health aspect of working in places where animals hang upside down all day long. "These environments are incredibly difficult to work in," Jackson suggests.
But little research has been done in this area to offer insight on the mental repercussions on those who toil in these environments. "We really don't have systematic information about it," says Dr. Fitzgerald, who co-authored a study in 2009, examining the relationship between slaughterhouse employment levels and crime rates. Results were compared with other manufacturing industries with similar labour force composition, injury and illness rates, but engage in inanimate materials of production.
The study, Slaughterhouses and Increased Crime Rates, hypothesizes that the work of killing animals in an industrial process may have social and psychological consequences for workers over and above other characteristics of the work. It examines slaughterhouse facilities in 581 counties. The data, accessed through the United States Census Bureau's County Business Patterns, covers the period from 1994 to 2002.
Results indicate that the slaughterhouse employment variable has a significant positive effect on arrests for rape and other sex offences — effects not found in the comparison industries. An average-sized slaughterhouse, which employs 175 people, would be expected to increase the number of arrests by 2.24 and the report rate by 4.69. The expected arrest and report value in counties with 7,500 slaughterhouse employees are more than double the values where there are no slaughterhouse workers.
The study argues the results lend support to the argument that the industrial slaughterhouse is different in its effects from other industrial facilities. "Many of these offences are perpetrated against those with less power and we interpret this as evidence that the work done within slaughterhouses might spill over to violence against other less powerful groups, such as women and children."
An earlier study, which looks at 1,404 non-metropolitan counties in the United States from 1990 to 2000, arrived at similar conclusions. Counties with growth in meatpacking employment experienced faster growth in violent crime rates over the decade relative to counties without packing plants.
The psychological trauma of slaughterhouse work can be inflicted on workers in several ways: perpetration-induced traumatic stress (PITS), empathy suppression and violating the natural preference against killing, notes a study published in 2008 by Jennifer Dillard of Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C. While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for protecting workers in the United States from workplace hazards, "the lack of psychological regulation is due to the agency's prioritizing of more traditional, physical health issues and the 'perceived exigency' of these problems," she contends.
Perpetration-induced traumatic stress is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by being an active participant in causing trauma. Occupations that can put workers at risk of PITS include soldiers, executioners and police officers, where it is socially acceptable or even expected of them to cause trauma, including death. Symptoms of PITS include substance abuse, depression, increased paranoia and a sense of disintegration. Dillard notes in her study that substance abuse, which is prevalent among slaughterhouse workers, is evidence of the adverse psychological impact associated with the nature of their work.
The intensive, production-focused nature of factory farming and meatpacking facilities also requires workers in such workplaces to suppress their spontaneous empathy for animals. "By habitually violating one's natural preference against killing, the worker very likely is adversely psychologically impacted," Dillard concludes.
NOW AND THEN
As of October 29, XL Foods Inc. resumed operations under enhanced CFIA oversight and increased testing protocols. A statement from the CFIA notes that agency inspectors closely monitored plant operations, including the uploading and screening of animals, pre-operation inspections, slaughter and the cutting and processing of carcasses. It has also requested the company submit corrective action plans outlining how they will address these issues in the longer term and mitigate future risks.
But the situation was rather different back in early September during the onset of the investigation when the CFIA seemed to have difficulty obtaining information from the plant. That prompted federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz's comments that agency inspectors could have been "more hard-nosed" when dealing with the plant responsible for the country's largest beef recall.
Information from the CFIA indicates that on September 6, the agency requested from XL Foods distribution information and testing results for all products produced on the days when the affected products were made. This was followed by a formal letter on September 7 stating that the company must respond by the following day. The information was provided in a series of submissions over two days on September 10.
"If we did not get what we needed or had requested, we would stop the production line," Jackson says of his time when meat inspectors were given clear direction on where their authorities lie. "What seems to have happened now is inspectors are not being given that direction to the point that they will feel uncomfortable, perhaps stopping the line or taking something out of production," he suggests.
McGowan observes that through the years, the meatpacking industry has been moving towards a policy of self-regulation. The shift started more than a decade ago when the CFIA, created in 1997, came under the responsibility of the agriculture ministry. While federal meat inspections are still being conducted in packing plants, he notes that there is increasing reliance on written reports furnished by quality control officers employed by the plant.
"It is very clear that cuts and deregulation have compromised both worker safety and food safety," McGowan says, stressing the need for more rigorous enforcement. "When it comes to safety, it means more inspectors, more boots on the ground, a greater willingness to shut down plants that are not in compliance. And it also means tougher prosecution."
In a statement issued in October of 2012, the Alberta Federation of Labour and the United Food and Commercial Workers union called for a public inquiry into the tainted meat debacle to address issues, such as the level of authority and mandate of CFIA employees, line speeds and if there is adequate training and whistleblower protection for workers.
"The results of Canada's system of self-regulation have already been criticized by American inspectors," the statement notes. "Over the last decade, several United States Department of Agriculture inspections have flagged problems with beef processing plants in Alberta."
As a sign of things to come, the federal government will stop inspecting provincially-licensed abattoirs in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba by 2014. Effect from December 31, 2013, British Columbia will take over from the CFIA the responsibility of meat inspection for provincially-licensed Class A and B slaughter facilities. The inspection of federally-licensed abattoirs and other issues of federal jurisdiction will remain under the CFIA.
The British Columbia ministries of Agriculture and Health held extensive consultations with the province's livestock and slaughter industries about the new meat inspection system for provincially licensed abattoirs. Inputs from these consultations, collated in the July of 2012 report, Summary of Industry Consultations of the BC Abattoir Inspection System Review, "reflects the observation that the B.C government will face challenges in implementing a meat inspection system that responds to the needs of all parties. This is especially true in an industry as diverse as B.C.'s meat processing industry," the report states.
Jackson concurs that the agriculture ministry's mandate to act in the interest of the agricultural sector can restrict its regulatory role of ensuring that food products produced by the very industry it is tasked to promote meets federal health standards. "It does raise the spectre of the potential for conflict," he suggests. "I don't recall there being such large incidents of E. coli, Listeriosis and these massive numbers of recalls on an annual basis for a whole wide variety of things."
E. coli, a bacteria that exists naturally in the intestines of cattle, poultry and other animals, can be transferred to the outer surface of meat during butchering. Some of the most common ways to be infected with E. coli are improper handling of raw ground meat, consumption of undercooked ground meat and contact with feces of cattle. "The bacteria that contaminates the meat can also infect individual workers who come into contact with it," Dr. Fitzgerald cautions.
ON THE GROUND
Fuller understands the challenges of ensuring smooth operation in a meatpacking plant and keeping workers safe at the same time. But the newly-constructed facility where he works makes his job a tad easier. "It is a very new plant. Everything from the handling facility down to the cutting and wrapping have kind of been thought through as best as possible."
He reveals that when the plant had just finished construction in February, they did not realize it would be handling bisons. "So when we got a customer who is talking about a consistent volume of bison coming through here, we invest in upgrading our handling facility to handle these bisons, which are different than cattle. They have a lot more energy."
The type of livestock being handled has an influence on the design of a facility. "The way our facility is set up, we have a way to move the animals without actually getting into the pen with them and I think that is really important," Fuller says. "Humane animal handing has a lot to do with stress so always keep them calm, not getting the animals riled up. That is very helpful in keeping everybody safe." Having more than one worker in a handling facility also allows them to watch each other's backs, he adds.
Keeping the environment sanitary is also key, especially on the kill floor where slips and trips are a real hazard. That means exercising diligence in spraying a floor down if blood is present, keeping the floor free from debris and liquids that could cause other hazards and removing remnants of fat or meat particles from the evisceration process. "You try to avoid having the opportunity to have a lot of bacteria build up in various areas where it will affect the workers or food safety," Fuller cautions. Frequent handwashing and keeping knives clean with sterilizer boxes where knives can be dipped are among the preventive measures, he adds.
Verbal communication is also important in alerting workers to hazards. Physical dangers abound in an environment where carcasses are constantly being moved across rail lines. "When you have a 600-pound carcass coming down the line, you got to be careful," Powell cautions.
Workers also need to be adequately trained to safely do their jobs, considering that meatpacking plants often employ a high proportion of migrant workers. "The industry has become quite adept at recruiting the most marginalized population that are quite vulnerable," Dr. Fitzgerald suggests.
McGowan agrees. "A lot of these temporary farm workers are very reluctant to speak out for themselves when it comes to any issue, especially safety issues. They want to stay in Canada and so they keep quiet, keep their heads down and continue working."
In a meatpacking facility in Colorado where Fuller used to work, he recalls working alongside employees from Mexico, some of whom spoke little English. To address the language barrier, he had a bilingual worker translate the standard operational procedure, which was written in English, into Spanish for reading by the Mexican workers as part of their training. A supervisor was then assigned to provide hands-on training. He also made sure that a worker who speaks only Spanish would not be placed to work alongside purely English speakers. "I have somebody who spoke Spanish around so they could communicate effectively with the whole group," he adds.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
The CFIA says the tainted meat incident at XL Foods cannot be attributed to a specific problem. However, there are a number of factors that, when considered collectively, may have contributed to the incident. These preliminary findings are already being considered by both the CFIA and the meat industry. The review has resulted in some modifications to previous practices, the Canadian Meat Council reports.
"A good place to start is slowing down line speeds," Dr. Fitzgerald suggests. "It has been ratcheted up to increase profits, but it really is causing more problems for workers and for meat safety." She suggests that the industry's high turnover rate has led to on-the-job training falling by the wayside.
For Powell, enforcement certainly has a part to play, but so does company culture. "What they need is a culture that values food safety and worker safety as much as it values profit."
Jackson is of the mind that an emphasis on controlling the environment as much as possible is needed. Sufficient resources should be made available to ensure that workers have proper breaks away from the lines and their mental capabilities are looked after. "I don't know if there have been studies done on the long-term effects of being exposed to these environments over a person's career. I'm sure it can't be healthy."
For that to take place, a fundamental change to the legal and regulatory frameworks needs to be effected. Although Dillard's study is framed within an American context, her recommendations on ways to improve the mental health of meatpacking plant workers nevertheless have resonance for Canada, which shipped $24 billion worth of meat products worldwide in 2010.
She recommends that a regulatory framework for psychological safety in slaughterhouses be developed under the mandate of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "Just as OSHA inspectors can pinpoint workplaces that are hazardous to an employee's physical safety, OSHA inspectors could use their inspections to pinpoint workplaces that are hazardous to psychological safety," Dillard writes.
Workers' compensation can also serve as a legal scheme to redress the psychological harm associated with slaughterhouse work. Dillard argues that such a system would encourage employers to maintain psychologically healthy work environments and provide monetary relief to employees who suffer from ongoing, pervasive psychological trauma due to the violence of their workplace. "A typical slaughterhouse should be considered an ultrahazardous activity for psychological well-being, and employers should be liable for psychological damage caused by the work," Dillard contends.
In 1906, Upton Sinclair's novel, The Jungle, caused a public furor with its descriptions of morbid conditions in meatpacking houses in the Chicago stockyards during the early 20th century. The Federal Meat Inspection Act was created in the same year the novel was published.
"I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach," wrote Sinclair in reference to the unintended consequences of sparking an outcry against the sector. Hopefully, the XL Foods incident — which has hit many Canadians in the stomach — will also accidentally touch our hearts.
BEHIND THE WALLS
Meatpacking facilities are not accessible to members of the public, but it does not take much imagination to figure out how the ubiquitous use of sharp knives, handling animals and high line speeds converge to create an environment conducive for accidents and increased repetitive movements. A look at injury statistics can put that in perspective.
In 2010, Alberta's meat, hides and pelt products sub-sector had a disabling injury claim rate of 12.42 per 100 person-years worked — the highest of any manufacturing, processing and packaging sub-sectors, notes information from Occupational Injuries and Diseases in Alberta.
Hands and fingers are the most commonly injured body parts (27 per cent), followed by the back (13 per cent) and shoulders (11 per cent), notes information from Workplace Health and Safety Queensland in Australia.
OHS, January/February 2013 issue
Byline: Jean Lian, Editor of OHS Canada