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Study spotlights high injury risk among food supply chain workers


Photo: Edwin Tan/iStockphoto

State College, PA — Workers who play a role in the U.S. food supply chain are at high risk for being hospitalized with severe injuries, results of a recent study show.

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University and the University of Florida used 2015-2020 data from OSHA to investigate all severe injuries related to transport packaging and its use in various segments of the food and beverage-related industry.

Of the 1,084 severe injuries reported, 272 (25.1%) were from employees of grocery and related product merchant wholesalers. Warehousing and storage workers accounted for 191 of the injuries (17.6%), followed by grocery stores workers, who reported 176 injuries (16.2%).

“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,” lead study author Judd Michael, an agricultural and biological engineering professor at Penn State, said in a press release. “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.”

Other findings:

  • Transportation incidents (60%) were the No. 1 event or exposure reported.
  • The vast majority of the injuries (91.6%) required hospitalizations.
  • A majority of the injuries (55%) were to lower extremities.
  • Fractures accounted for 48.7% of the injuries.

The annual number of severe injuries increased almost every year over the study period, with 201 and 219 recorded in 2019 and 2020, respectively – up from 132 in 2015. The researchers speculate that the COVID-19 pandemic played a part. 

“Suddenly, we weren’t eating out at restaurants,” Michael said. “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. 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.”

The study was published online in the National Safety Council’s Journal of Safety Research.

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