Only animals should die in abattoirs

The Sunday Age of 30 January 2011 ran an article about the status of workplace safety in some of Victoria’s abattoirs.  The article has some similarities to the landmark investigations by Eric Schlosser into work practices and compensation issues related to meatworks in the United States.

The Sunday Age says that

“(Last financial year [2009/2010], there were 355 workers’ compensation claims in Victoria’s meat industry that required at least 10 days off work, or cost more than $580 in treatment, or both – almost one a day. Nationally the industry’s injury and illness rate remains twice as high as that in the construction industry, and four times the average of all workplaces.”

Many would say that meat work is “inherently dangerous” but in the article lawyer Trevor Monti, contests the perception

”Yes, it’s a difficult industry and the work can be hard,” he says. ”But with proper consideration given to the system of work, the risk of injury can be significantly reduced.”

This is a position with which OHS professionals and regulators would agree.

It is significant that, if the comparative figures quoted above by the Sunday Age are accurate, abattoirs do not receive the enforcement attention that the construction industry receives.  Is it that the construction industry is largely unionised and the meat industry much less so?  Is it that abattoirs are rorting the immigration visa system as asserted by the Australian Meat Industry?

Immigrant work is a slow-burning issue in Australia as it relates to non-urban industries predominantly and the countries geographical isolation has allowed governments to give migrant work a lower priority.  But Australia is suffering a major shortage in labour resources and skilled workers and in the not-too-distant future, the government will face the politically difficult call of encouraging overseas labour to meet the demands of the construction and mining industries to mention just two.  This will also present a challenge for those narrow-minded OHS professionals who focus on safety and exclude external political, economic and social factors.

Australian OHS regulators should pay particular attention to the 2004 report undertaken by Human Rights Watch entitled “Blood Sweat and Fear – Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants“.  The investigation found:

  • “Many workers suffer severe, life-threatening and sometimes life-ending injuries that are predictable and preventable.
  • Many workers cannot get the compensation for workplace injuries to which they are entitled.
  • Government laws, regulations, policies and enforcement fail to sufficiently protect meat and poultry workers’ health and safety at work and their right to compensation when they are hurt.”

Considerable attention is given to the human rights of refugees to Australia, and rightly so, but what of the lives of those refugees who are successful in starting new lives in Australia.  What of their working conditions?  What of their occupational safety and health?  Any refugee or migrant labour policies must consider the long-term welfare of new Australian visitors and citizens.  Hopefully organisations such as the recently established Human Rights Working Group for Business will embrace this need.

Another significant OHS issue is raised by The Sunday Age article.  The article says:

“One case it [WorkSafe Victoria] did not prosecute is that of 17-year-old trainee meatworker Sharga Taite, whose 2008 death may be the subject of a coronial inquest this year.

The teenager worked for six months at Warrnambool’s Midfield Meat abattoir. The day he died, Sharga was working as a slicer in the boning room – a non-stop process of converting freshly killed beasts into neatly packed boxes of meat cuts.”

Taite’s family has alleged in court the following concerns about Midfields Meat abattoir:

“…substandard training, understaffing, lax safety procedures and bullying.”

Counsel for WorkSafe Victoria

“… said their investigation found the training and supervision at the abattoir to be ”reasonably practicable”, and that the teenager’s training had been adequate.”

A major problem with the determination of “reasonably practicable” in this case is that no one has been prosecuted over a death at work.  The details in the article indicate that the death was caused by a medical problem of Taite’s and not by any deficiency of the company in managing safety but regardless, the family feels no justice.  The implication in this article is that “reasonably practicable” is seen as a cop-out for choosing not to prosecute.

If “reasonably practicable” is to be such a prominent part of Australian workplace safety law then its integrity must be sound.  It cannot be perceived as an excuse for “getting a company off” its OHS responsibilities.  Any introduction or application of “reasonably practicable” must be supported by alternate mechanisms for families to achieve justice, however that is determined.

Sharga Taite’s death may also be an example of the opportunities granted to others by New South Wales law and to all in the draft National Work Healthy & Safety law, to instigate prosecutions or to call for prosecutions when OHS regulators have chosen not to.  It would be disappointing if the Taite family did not seriously consider this option, should it be feasible.

As WorkSafe asserts in the article, safety in Victorian meatworks has improved dramatically.  The workers’ compensation figures quoted are also not surprising.  Several years ago, I provided support to a major workers’ compensation insurance company, along with a seconded WorkSafe Victoria inspector, to develop an online safety assessment and information product for several of its clients who had high insurance premiums.  These industry sectors were aged care, cleaning and meat processing plants.  As far as I am aware the project was not completed but there was considerable work undertaken and the project is likely to be languishing on an insurer’s shelf waiting to be refreshed.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

8 thoughts on “Only animals should die in abattoirs”

  1. I worked at \’the works. for 7 years, straight outa school. has left me with lasting damage. It\’s comparatively well paid, so I guess meat workers assume the risk for compensation?
    Gotta comment too, On the \’reasonably practicable… My partner & I both work on the mining sector. They have forums and meetings, safety shares all the live long day, Administrative controls. Breach any of these, and it\’s a window seat.
    Find any real, or perceived safety risks, any you\’re shut down or ignored, they put a patch over it, post a notice, then back to the real business of ohs, blaming the worker…
    As I see it, reasonably practicable is loosely defined. If it cannot be controlled by other means because of cost, or production, then it is assigned to the next level of control, right down to administative controls, blame the worker…
    Say there\’s a hole in the floor, you report it and barricade it. A company can say it\’s not reasonably practicable to repair or barricade it, based on their own judgement. They\’ll leave it there, and put up a sign, \’beware, hole in ground; If you do fall in the hole, it\’s your own fault and you take the blame.
    Of course there will be rounds of self congratulations, and an ongoing emphasis on reporting new hazards, but they really don\’t want to know about it. Ohs has devolved into administative controls.

  2. Kevin,

    There are also concerns about the injury rates in abattoirs and meat/poultry processing in Canadian jurisdictions. To be able to compare injury rates what does the term abattoir encompass in Australian industry? Do abattoirs process and package meat or simply slaughter and carry out basic butchering? Do they also handle poultry? Thanks in advance for any assistance you can provide.

    Terry

  3. The issue of safety in the abbattoirs will be addressed more keenly when the larger retailers insist on the same type of audits they perform on other suppliers, such as frozen foods and smallgoods. A large perentage of the audits relate to food hygiene and personal safety and requires evidence of Due Diligence in food manufacturing process, training, information sharing, safety through hazard management and control, chemical management and effective environmental management of waste and energy. Continuous improvement is required and this does make a huge diffence to the supplier and its systems.
    If the abbattoirs I have been in are any indication, there is often a lack of senior management appreciation of the issues related to work place safety and that the processes do not take into account many of the manual handling problems that could be managed with a little time and thought. They rely on strong and fit bodies and chew through these people over a period of years until they are worn out and physically damaged.

  4. The undiscovered body of a young abattoir work in Western Australia is a disturbing and curious event. WorkSafe WA issued the following media statement yesterday:

    \”WorkSafe is investigating the work-related death of an 18-year-old apprentice fitter at an abattoir in Harvey last week.
    The apprentice was believed to have been working on a piece of machinery on Tuesday when he was crushed. His body was not discovered until Friday.
    A WorkSafe inspector travelled to the site on Friday and will investigate the circumstances of the incident.\”

    Crush injuries in this type of industry are not uncommon but the tragedy is compounded by the mysterious delay in discovering the body. Currently there is not sufficient information for the delay.

    We\’ll keep our internet ears open

  5. As Wade points out, your post could not have been more timely. An 18 year old apprentice working alone, dies but his body is not discovered for 4 days. What sort of practices do these people have in place that allow something like this to happen. More importantly, why are they allowed to get away with it. Perhaps the government should pay as much attention to the conditions in which these employees work as they do to the manner in which the product is handled.

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