Many production jobs in food manufacturing involve repetitive, physically demanding work. Food manufacturing workers are highly susceptible to repetitive strain injuries to hands, wrists, and elbows. This type of injury is especially common in meat-processing and poultry-processing plants. Production workers often stand for long periods and may be required to lift heavy objects or use cutting, slicing, grinding, and other potentially dangerous tools and machines.
In 2002, there were 9.3 cases of work-related injury or illness per 100 full-time food manufacturing workers, much higher than the rate of 5.3 cases for the private sector as a whole. Injury rates vary significantly among specific food manufacturing industries, ranging from a low of 3.8 per 100 workers in flavoring extracts and syrups plants to 14.9 per 100 in meat packing plants, the highest rate in food manufacturing.
In an effort to reduce occupational hazards, many plants have redesigned equipment, increased the use of job rotation, allowed longer or more frequent breaks, and developed training programs in safe work practices. Although injury rates remain high, training and other changes have reduced those rates. Some workers wear protective hats, gloves, aprons, and shoes. In many industries, uniforms and protective clothing are changed daily for sanitary reasons.
Because of the considerable mechanization in the industry, most food manufacturing plants are noisy, with limited opportunities for interaction among workers. In some highly automated plants, “hands-on” manual work has been replaced by computers and factory automation, resulting in less waste and higher productivity. While much of the basic production-such as trimming, chopping, and sorting-will remain labor intensive for many years to come, automation is increasingly being applied to various functions, including inventory control, product movement, packing, and inspection.
Working conditions also depend on the type of food being processed. For example, some bakery employees work at night or on weekends and spend much of their shift near ovens that can be uncomfortably hot. In contrast, workers in dairies and meat-processing plants work typical daylight hours and may experience cold and damp conditions. Some plants, such as those producing processed fruits and vegetables, operate on a seasonal basis, so workers are not guaranteed steady, year-round employment and occasionally travel from region to region seeking work. These plants are increasingly rare, however, as the industry continues to diversify and manufacturing plants produce alternate foods during otherwise inactive periods.