At a national level the Australian Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) regime, Safe Work Australia leads the development of national policy to improve OHS and workers’ compensation arrangements across Australia. Each of the six states is responsible for the creation of complementary legislation to ensure that national safety standards are instituted, monitored and continually improved.
OHS is not a static function. It is a vibrant component of every industry group. While there are issues common to all industries, every industry has peculiar hazard environments.
Each state has its own compulsory workers’ compensation insurance scheme that every employer must contribute. Insurance is calculated as a percentage of the company’s total employee remuneration. In the state of Victoria, there are more than 500 industry classifications, each with a standard rate according to the historical performance of each claim and industry rate. As improvements (or declines) occur they are periodically adjusted. Currently, the rates can vary from as high as 7.123% for horse racing to a low of 0.312% for photo film processing. Meat processing is above average at 5.592% while manufactured meats are 3.524%.
There is what can be called a ‘carrot and stick’ policy within each industry group. If a particular employer has a lower than average accident rating, the insurance premium is reduced. If the accident rate is higher, the premium increases. Therefore, within the meat processing industry with its intense labour input and inherent hazards there is a strong incentive for management to have efficient, vibrant OHS policies: just not on files in the office but actively practiced by every level of management and the workforce.
The red meat processing industry in Australia is a major industry. The off-farm annual value of beef is USD 17bn, sheep USD 4.25bn and goat USD 25 million. From on-farm production, processing to retail about 200,000 people are employed. Geographically the supply chain is extremely variable. Livestock production in Australia is vast and certainly less labour intensive than countries such as Pakistan. While the processing sector has become very automated, the bulk of the labour is employed in that sector.
Any business venture can be seen as having five distinct components, often called the “five M’s” – Men, Money, Materials, Machinery, Marketing. For success, each component needs to be at its prime. If there is a first amongst equals it is MEN. Considering the intense labour force and the inherently hazardous nature of meat processing, human resources are the most valuable M.
Over recent decades there has been continuing work within the Australian meat industry to reduce its accident rate. The health and welfare of employees are paramount. However other factors such as high wages costs, maximum efficiency, and insurance premiums have been a driving force. While there have been excellent results in the frequency of accidents and a reduction of individual lost time per injury, the old perennial major hazards persist, namely:
- Traumatic joint, ligament muscle and tendon injuries caused by:
- Handling objects
- Knife handling
- Lifting and carrying objects
- Slips and falls
- Cuts and lacerations
- Foreign objects in the eye
- Burns caused by hot water or steam
Having entered the meat processing industry in 1960 I was fortunate to first develop a solid knowledge of processing procedures. After that, I specialised in market development with experience of working in Japan, Korea, China, Hong Kong and, more recently, regular visits to Pakistan over the last decade. My eye for safety has not diminished. The biggest change in the processing sector has been mechanisation. However, as the above research indicates, old problems persist.
Over the last decade, I have regularly visited Pakistan and have observed processing procedures in both the livestock and meat processing industries – both traditional and in new processing plants established for the export trade. In the process, two adages continually come to mind.
Old habits are more difficult to unlearn than it is to learn new habits.
Pakistan for centuries had a large cattle population, primarily bred for milk production. The cast for age females, tough old buffalos, and young males have been slaughtered in premises of various standards, certainly not the world’s best practice. The meat has been retailed unchilled – i.e. killed in the morning and retailed in the evening without being chilled. At all times the meat and the workers are subject to year-round ambient temperatures. Such a practice is typical in many Asian and middle eastern countries.
The transition for a traditional meat butcher to an export meat processing environment is dramatic. For example:
- On the slaughter floor, he will be allocated a repetitive task on movable platforms and his work rate is determined by the moving chain.
- In the boning room, the ambient temperature is 10-degrees Centigrade and the meat temperature is normally between around 6-8 degrees Centigrade, while it could be as high as 35-degrees Centigrade outside for most of the year. It is a shock to anyone’s system to move between these extremes and can potentially cause muscle sprains and other health issues.
In both departments, the same traditional short bladed straight knife used in the hot is used by workers. International practice is to use a knife to suit the task – such as a curved blade for skinning or final trimming of the boneless meat or certain boning tasks. A short straight knife is suitable for more precise boning operations.
The processing of meat for export requires different procedures. The use of the correct tool for the task will not only reduce muscle strains and knife cuts. It will improve productivity and add value to products such as fewer cuts and scores on hides and skins on the slaughter floor and more consistent quality meat cuts.
Familiarity breeds accidents:
Two incidents that I have been involved in over many years in the industry highlight this adage.
Slips and falls on wet and, at times, slippery floors are universal hazards in meat processing. Even consultants can be victims. On one occasion I was visiting a plant and walking along a corridor department corridor with staff. In the middle of the group, I was talking while walking along the drainage grating. I tripped on a proud length of grating that had not been replaced correctly after washing. The fall resulted in a visit to a hospital and restricted use of my right hand for a week.
Knives can be a dangerous instrument that needs to be respected at all times by everyone. On one occasion I was observing functions on a beef slaughter floor when a blackout occurred, and the emergency lighting failed to activate. The next thing I knew two workers had joined me and commenced talking. As my eyes adjusted I realised they were both carrying knives in their hands. They were not wearing a knife pouch and were careless enough to walk in virtual darkness on a slippery wet floor with a knife in their hand.
Yes, familiarity can certainly breed accidents.
One important issue that Pakistan’s meat processing industry should include in safety procedures are animal disease that are transmissible to humans e.g. various strains of brucellosis. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s livestock industry is plagued with a range of such diseases. As the processing industry grows so too does the risk of more transmission.