According to a recent study headed by Penn State, there is a significant danger of serious injury for workers who are responsible for moving items around the vast U.S. food system. Researchers also believe that supply-chain issues brought on by the pandemic have made the situation worse.
According to lead researcher Judd Michael, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Penn State, the modern food supply chain poses special risks to workers that result in greater rates of fatalities and injuries when compared to most other industries. There are a disproportionately high number of occupational injuries and fatalities among workers in the food manufacturing, wholesale, and even retail industries.
According to Michael, one factor contributing to the high risk rates may be the use of a synergistic packaging system intended to load and move food goods inside of and between manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers.
In the modern system, food products are aggregated and transported after they have been packaged, requiring potentially dangerous machinery, equipment and methods to accomplish those tasks, Michael explained.
“Materials handling and movement within and between facilities is critical to the efficient functioning of all links of the food-related supply chain, but product movement can be a source of occupational injuries,” he said. “For example, manufacturers often use palletizers to aggregate individually packaged food products into a unit load before they can be transported using a pallet jack, forklift or other powered industrial truck.”
Michael, who is the Penn State Nationwide Insurance Professor of Safety and Health in the College of Agricultural Sciences, noted that the COVID-19 pandemic motivated his team to undertake the research. They were interested in learning how the increased strain on the food supply chain was affecting the workforce.
Materials handling and movement within and between facilities is critical to the efficient functioning of all links of the food-related supply chain, but product movement can be a source of occupational injuries.Professor Judd Michael
According to news reports from the first year of the epidemic, our food supply chain appeared to be falling behind the new demands brought on by the pandemic, he said. The fact that the majority of People having to stay at home impacted how food had to be cooked, packaged, and transported.
“Suddenly, we weren’t eating out at restaurants, we were going to the grocery store or ordering online much more and buying food products that we hadn’t purchased the same way before,” he said. “We suspected this put a lot of pressure on the workers in the food supply chain. And we wanted to try to document that, to highlight the increase in injuries during the first part of the pandemic when the food supply chain was under tremendous pressure.”
And significantly, Michael added, “we wanted to emphasize the importance of the blue-collar food industry workers and the sacrifices they make every day to get food from the farm to our tables.”
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s database was utilized by the researchers to look into all severe injuries that occurred in the food supply chain in the six-year period between 2015 and 2020.
Throughout the six-year period, their findings showed 1,084 severe injuries and 47 fatalities, while the researchers acknowledged that the true numbers may have been twice as high. According to data, there were much more severe injuries in 2020 than in other years.
The researchers’ findings, which were released this morning (February 24, 2023) in the Journal of Safety Research, revealed that lower extremity fractures were more common than any other sort of accident occurrence, with transportation-related accidents like pedestrian-vehicle collisions being the most common.
Large retailers that sell food along with many other products such as Walmart, Sam’s Club and Costco were not included in the research, Michael pointed out.
“We wanted to be very narrow with our definition of a grocery store or a food retailer, and those big, multi-faceted operations are not, strictly speaking, just grocery or food retailers, because food is just a part of their overall sales,” he said.
“It would not have been possible for us to determine which of their accidents and injuries were related to moving food products. If we had somehow been able to include their statistics, of course, the injury numbers would be considerably higher.”
Serap Gorucu, assistant professor of risk analysis, safety, and health of agricultural systems at the University of Florida, contributed to the research.