Downsizing Linked to Worker Injury

ByABC News

N E W   Y O R K, April 16, 2001 -- While layoffs clearly hurt the bank balance of those who have been pink-slipped, remaining employees may suffer increased on-the-job injuries as they struggle to meet heightened production demands.

In a study of 237 poultry-processing plant workers going through downsizing, researchers found that those employees who feared they might be laid off paid less attention to safety and experienced more workplace injuries and accidents.

In the spring and fall of 1999, psychologist Tahira Probst and colleagues surveyed workers at two major poultry-processing plants that were undergoing organizational changes affecting job security.

At one plant an entire shift of workers was let go in preparation for what was rumored to be a shutdown of the plant.

Job Fears Stronger Than Safety Concerns

At the other facility, swing shift workers were being eliminated in favor of a night shift. Those who could not work the night shift, such as single parents with no day-care alternatives, were expected to lose their jobs.

The researchers found that employees worried about job loss showed less safety motivation and compliance at work and experienced more wrist, arm and hand injuries. Those most fearing job loss would cut safety corners in trying to make production quotas, believing managers would want that and would try to keep their positions.

Employees at poultry-processing plants work with sharp implements and equipment to cut the chickens, explains Probst, who is an assistant professor of psychology at Washington State University in Vancouver. They also use boiling water to de-feather the birds and work in cold temperatures to package the parts.

Probst says employers should keep safety in mind when they cut jobs. Often employees feel management is asking them to sacrifice safety for production, she says. To ensure the safety of employees, she adds, employers should reward those employees who follow appropriate safety guidelines.

Her findings are published in the current issue of the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

Job Perception Influences Health

In a related study in the journal, Susan Ettner, a health economist with the University of California in Los Angeles Medical Center, found that workers' perceptions of their job influences their beliefs about how the position influences their health.

She and colleagues surveyed 2,048 workers between the ages of 25 and 74 and asked them to consider what kinds of job situations would be beneficial or detrimental to their health.

The researchers found, predictably, Ettner says, that those people who had greater decision latitude and greater ability to learn and use skills on the job felt such positions were better for their health.

They also found that people believed working more than 35 to 45 hours a week would affect their health, a finding employers should keep in mind when asking people to work overtime, Ettner says.

A surprising finding of the study was that people who were higher wageearners felt less favorably about their job's health effects.

"That doesn't mean that employers should lower the salaries of employees," Ettner says.

Her result, she says, might be due to higher wage earners being more critical and having a higher expectation of the fulfillment of their job than lower wage earners, skewing the overall result in a counterintuitive way.