The pandemic pushed many factories and even entire industries into automation. Perhaps one of the most significant is meat processing. Workers stand close together and work directly on animal carcasses with sharp implements, racking up more injuries and illnesses than miners, loggers, or construction workers.
During the pandemic, COVID-19 made working conditions even worse, as the virus spread through processing plants. Tyson Foods reported 2,866 cases. This came to nearly one third of all workplace-reported cases of the virus in Arkansas.
A Tyson pork processing plant in Iowa had 1,000 cases of COVID-19 and at least six deaths. This plant was reported as having a number of bad situations in place, including keeping outbreaks secret from workers and betting on the number of coronavirus cases the facility would have.
Tyson, which is the nation’s largest poultry processor, installed plexiglass shields and provided personal protective gear for employees in their chicken processing plants. They recently mandated vaccines for their workers after holding more than 100 vaccination events and paying incentives for vaccinated workers. 91% of their workers are now vaccinated.
Not only did meat processing plants face serious dangers, they also ended up with shortages.
The Wall Street Journal points out that “In April and May, more than 17,300 meat and poultry processing workers in 29 states were infected and 91 died, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Plant shutdowns reduced U.S. beef and pork production by more than one-third in late April.”
“Multiple, unprecedented market shocks, including a global pandemic and severe weather conditions, led to an unexpected and drastic drop in meat processors’ abilities to operate at full capacity,” according to a statement from Tyson Foods. “Labor shortages are also affecting the nation’s pork and poultry supply.”
Tyson Foods has put $500 million into research and development for automation in the past three years. They expect to spend another $1.3 billion in the next three years. They’re also invested $500 million in human workers in the past year, paying bonuses and increasing safety measures. They hope that the automation will cut down on the losses caused by high employee turnover, and save them more than $1 billion by 2024.
Part of the cost of this automation is coming up with machines that can process meat as well as humans can. Meat, including chicken parts, is soft and pieces are less than identical in shape and size. This makes it tough for robots to work with.
A new water-jet cutter is getting close to this dream. Tyson hopes to automate the deboning of chicken, which would mean getting robots into one of the highest-turnover, most dangerous jobs. Water jets are already USDA approved, and can reduce bacterial contamination.
As is so often the case, worries about displacing workers are not high on the list of priorities. Deboning chickens is not a desirable job, and people working in this field can easily be moved, Tyson says, into other front-line jobs.