At least two abattoir workers are seriously injured in the UK every week and amputations occur at least once a month, shock new figures show.
The data – obtained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the i newspaper – shows that meat processing staff work in some of the most dangerous conditions in the country.
Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures from the six years to March 2017 show that 800 workers were seriously injured – an average of at least two a week – and that 4,500 staff had to take sick leave to recuperate from workplace accidents.
During the same period, four workers were killed and 78 had limbs, fingers or parts of fingers amputated at work.
In 2017-16 alone, 18 meat processing workers suffered amputations.
The workplace accident rate for the food and drink manufacturing sector is more than twice the UK average for other industries, with the HSE stating that meat processing is especially dangerous.
HSE head of manufacturing John Rowe said, “It is a concern for HSE the level of injuries we see to employees in the meat processing sector. They are at the top end of our concern level when it comes to injury and ill-health rates.”
Staff in the £8bn meat processing industry, which employs 75,000 people, often work long shifts on quick paced production lines and use knives and other dangerous machinery to prepare, debone and process carcasses.
Workers may also have deal with live animals before they are killed, clean machinery and carry heavy slabs of meat.
Official analysis from 2017 showed that around 44 per cent of meat processing workers are EU migrants, many believed to be Eastern European.
TUC health and safety officer Hugh Robertson said the combination of a migrant workforce who may not know their full health and safety rights and the insecure employment practices used by many employers is making be the situation worse.
He told the i, “We know that a lot of abattoirs are dependent on migrant workers. Unions are concerned that they often have little knowledge of their rights and, even when they do know their rights, are unable to protect them because many of them are on temporary contracts or employed through an agency.”
Unite national officer for Food, Drink and Agriculture Joe Clarke said injury rates in the meat processing industry are “alarmingly high” and called on employers to take responsibility.
He said, “Nobody should be losing their arms or hands at work, but that is all too often the case for workers in this sector. Employers need to take urgent action to understand why there are such high levels of serious injury in their workplaces and take steps to prevent them.”
Clarke added, “While employers can and must take responsibility for poor health and safety, we know unionised workplaces with independent safety reps have much lower accident rates because workers are aware of the risks and are able to take action against dangerous working conditions.
“Unite is at the forefront of campaigning for better enforcement from the HSE and improved safety laws; however it is crucial that we organise and recruit in the workplace so staff can stand together to best protect themselves.”