The brains behind the award

How does a meatpacking plant where 18 workers have gotten a mysterious neurological illness, possibly because of the work they did, win a health and safety award from the American Meat Institute?

It’s an apparent head-scratcher to a lot of people, Dan McCoslin, AMI’s director of worker safety and human resources, acknowledged to me this afternoon. But there actually is a decent explanation for the award to Quality Pork Products in Austin.

“Performance is 60-percent of the total awards points,” he said, “measured between the total number of incidents reported to OSHA (treatment beyond first aid) and… the rate of the number of days away from work. On the program side, it’s how the facility measures up… on training, employee involvement, adherence to standards; that sort of thing.” (Listen to full description)

So how did the Austin plant win?

“Their overall performance is, in fact, excellent. They’re consistently below the industry average in both total cases and the days away,” McCoslin said. “Their overall safety program is excellent. (Listen)

Quality Pork has between 1,200 and 1,400 employees, according to McCoslin, and from a numbers point of view, 18 “incidents”, though serious, is less than 1 percent of the total workforce. “Although this is vexing and everyone is still trying to get to the bottom of it, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a good safety program.”

McCoslin says the plant “deserves something of a pat on the back for the way they handled this incident. As soon as the nurses there realized that there was something different and unique going on with these particular symptoms, they notified management, management notified the Minnesota Department of Health, the Mayo Clinic… was brought in as well, Minnesota Department of Health brought in the CDC in Atlanta. All of this started when QPP stepped forward and did the right thing and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got something going on here and we don’t know whether it’s a big problem or a little problem but we do know that it’s more than we can deal with.'” (Listen)

Point taken. The reason we know about it is a reflection on the plant’s safety program.

Nothing is proven yet, that the the practices at the Austin plant is what is responsible for the mysterious illness, but McCoslin says the industry is watching, even though most plants don’t “harvest” pig brains the way the workers at QPP did.

“I had never heard… and I’ve been in the industry for 40 years … of harvesting brain tissue with compressed air,” according to McCoslin. ” That’s not the way it’s normally done. Normally, at the end of the line the reminder of the skull is split in half and brains are simply scooped out and placed in containers, chilled, packed, and sold. And the other part of that is, as you may imagine, there’s not a tremendous market for pork brains these days.” (Listen)