Don’t breathe the pig brains, revisited
June 30, 2011 Leave a comment
So, a couple of years ago I wrote about workers at a hog processing factory in Minnesota developing a dymyelinating nerve disorder that arose from their job of blowing the brains out of pig skulls with high pressure air hoses. Fun! Thus, I was particularly intrigued to read this recent MoJo story that follows up on these cases and goes inside the plant. Not all that surprisingly, it looks like the problems came from increasingly unsafe and unsanitary (i.e., more profitable) working conditions:
The new disease theory made sense, except that, according to company officials, QPP had been blowing brains, off and on, for more than a decade. So why did workers fall ill now and not earlier? The answer is complex. First, in April 2006, the line speed increased from 1,300 pig heads moving down the conveyor belt each hour to 1,350. This speedup was slight, but it was just the latest in a series of gradual increases. “The line speed, the line speed,” Lachance told the AP, when recounting patient interviews. “That’s what we heard over and over again.” The line had been set at 900 heads per hour when the brain harvesting first began in 1996—meaning that the rate had increased a full 50 percent over the decade, whereas the number of workers had hardly risen. Garcia told me that the speed made it hard to keep up. Second, to match the pace, the company switched from a foot-operated trigger to an automatic system tripped by inserting the nozzle into the brain cavity, but sometimes the blower would misfire and spatter. Complaints about this had led to the installation of the plexiglass shield between the worker manning the brain machine and the rest of the head table. Third, the increased speed had caused pig heads to pile up at the opening in the shield. At some point in late 2006, the jammed skulls, pressed forward by the conveyor belt, had actually cracked the plastic, allowing more mist to drift over the head table.
Working at the “head table” in a hog-processing plant is bad enough. Is it asking too much that we at least give the people a chance to do their jobs at a non-crazy rate of speed? Apparently.