First study of Oregon’s seafood processing workers finds high rate of injury

As a PhD student, Laura Syron was helping her advisor with workplace safety research focused on the Pacific Northwest commercial fishing industry. The project got her thinking about worker safety throughout the seafood supply chain, from the boat to the processing plant. So she decided to do a study of her own.

The result is likely the first to examine occupational health and safety inside Oregon’s seafood processing industry. Along with her co-authors, Syron, a doctoral student at Oregon State University College of Public Health and Human Sciences, examined data from workers’ compensation disabling claims at the Oregon Health Authority. That dataset offers information on industry, occupation, worker gender and age, incident circumstances, medical costs, fatality, and temporary disability days paid. A “disabling” claim includes missing three or more days of work as well as hospitalization and long-term disability. The big takeaway: Oregon’s seafood processing workers experience injuries at a higher rate than the statewide average.

“I wasn’t sure what we would find — I was just curious if this was an industry that merited more research,” Syron told me. “And we found that it does.”

Published this month in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, the study found 188 disabling claims in Oregon’s seafood processing sector between 2007 and 2013. No worker fatalities were reported in the dataset. In that time period, the average annual claim rate in the seafood processing industry was 24 claims per 1,000 workers. Both claim frequency and the claim rate for such workers increased during the years studied, though there were slight drops in 2009 and 2013. In comparison, the disabling claim rate for all industries in Oregon was 11.9 per 1,000 workers in 2007, dropping to 8 per 1,000 by 2013. Most of the seafood processing claims were among men, with workers ages 25 to 34 experiencing the highest frequency and rate of disabling claims.

Syron and study co-authors Laurel Kincl, Liu Yang, Daniel Cain and Ellen Smit write:

Oregon's seafood processing industry disabling claim rate was nearly two and a half times higher than the all-industry rate. Additionally, while the disabling claim rate for all industries in Oregon decreased over the study period, the rate in the seafood processing industry increased. Potentially, a contributing factor for the increasing trend in the seafood processing industry claim rate over the study period could have been the increased demand for seafood preparation and packaging. During 2007-2013, Oregon seafood landings (i.e., the amount of seafood that is harvested and brought to shore for processing) experienced a 22% increase, from 271,062,716 pounds in 2007 to 349,434,448 pounds in 2013. Additional research is necessary to identify causes for the increase in disabling claims in the seafood processing industry.

“It was encouraging that there were no occupational fatalities in the industry during the study period — that’s the great news,” Syron said. “But the musculoskeletal injuries are a big concern.”

On that issue, the study found that about half of the seafood processing claims involved traumatic injuries, with the most common being injury to a worker’s muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints. More than half of claims involved worker overexertion and bodily reaction, and about one-third were due to contact with objects or equipment. Nearly all the musculoskeletal injuries were due to overexertion and bodily reaction. More than half the claims involved workers who did tasks such as cutting and trimming fish or batching food. About a quarter of claims were among workers involved in transportation and moving. Among both groups of workers, injuries to muscles, tendons, joints and ligaments were most common.

The authors noted that their findings align with previous research on seafood processing in the Pacific Northwest that also found high rates of work-related musculoskeletal disorders. For example, a study on Washington state workers’ comp data from 1987 to 1995 found that seafood cannery workers experienced some of the highest rates of carpel tunnel syndrome. On the issue of prevention — which averts injuries to workers and lowers workers’ comp costs for employers — the study said fellow animal product manufacturing sectors, such as poultry processing, could likely offer some valuable safety insights to seafood processors.

“I hope that researchers and public health practitioners can partner with industry to think about how they can work together to prevent these injuries,” Syron told me. “Hopefully, these findings can start a discussion and help workers and industry reach that goal of keeping everyone safe and healthy.”

For a copy of the seafood worker study, visit the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for 15 years.

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