Assessing Worker Health in the Pork Industry

Updated August 2023


Worker health is essential to quality pork production. Worker health is typically assessed through pre-employment physicals and regularly occurring checkups of active employees as part of an overall occupational medicine and health promotion program. Pre-employment physicals can help pork producers match a potential employee with a specific job in the operation. Pre-employment and regularly occurring health assessments are to be completed by medical professionals. While these physical assessments may be customized to the position description, hearing tests and measurements of respiratory function are important considerations to include in heath assessments for swine farm workers. The objective of this article is to describe the basic components of pre-employment physicals, hearing tests, and respiratory tests for swine workers.


  • Learn the essentials of worker health assessments, including pre-employment physicals, hearing tests, and pulmonary (lung) function tests.
  • Understand the employer’s requirements and responsibilities for assessing worker health.

Methods of Worker Health Assessment

Pre-Employment Physical:

Pre-employment physicals are medical examinations that swine farm owners may require candidates to complete before beginning work. Physicals typically consist of a complete health history of the job candidate and a physical examination of the candidate’s vital signs (e.g., height, weight) and body systems (e.g., cardiovascular, respiratory). Vision tests and hearing tests are also regular features of a pre-employment physical. Additional testing may also be conducted if recommended by the physician, including urinalysis, electrocardiogram, and drug and alcohol tests.

There are several benefits to implementing pre-employment physicals (Schaafsma et al., 2016).

These examinations can help employers:

  • Determine proper placement of employees and reasonable accommodations for qualified applicants;
  • Limit future liability for work-related injuries and illness;
  • Establish employees’ baseline health status and promote workplace safety;
  • Reduce sick leave among workers.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a pre-employment physical examination may not be conducted until after a conditional offer of employment has been made. Additionally, an employer may not ask a job applicant about the existence or severity of disabilities prior to making a job offer. However, an employer may ask an applicant about their ability to perform specific job functions prior to making an offer. An employer may also make the job offer conditional upon the satisfactory result of a pre-employment physical, provided that the physical is required of all employees who work in that position (ADA National Network, 2023). For more information, or if in doubt about best hiring practices, please consult ADA information websites, including:

Studies have found that the rates of rejecting job applicants due to failed pre-employment physicals may range from 2% to 35% (Schaafsma et al., 2016). Testing should be conducted by an independent physician, if possible. In many cases a general practitioner can be used to conduct pre-employment physicals; however, some physicians specialize in occupational health.

Power washing is a source of noise exposure in swine barns.

Power washing is a source of noise exposure in swine barns. Photo: NPB

Hearing Health: Working with pigs can be loud, especially during specific tasks such as power washing, snaring, or feeding (Achutan and Tubbs, 2007). According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), noise exposure is detrimental to hearing health when exceeding 85 decibels (dB) continuously for 8 working hours. Under these conditions, a Hearing Conservation Program (as described by OSHA Standard 1910.95) is required, which encompasses workplace and worker monitoring, and the provision of regular audiometric testing, hearing protection, and training materials at no cost to the worker. Audiometric testing involves the monitoring of an employee’s hearing over time. It must be performed by a professional (e.g., physician) or trained technician. Hearing tests may be performed at the start of employment to determine a baseline and annually thereafter. These tests usually involve wearing a set of headphones while a technician creates sounds of varying intensity and frequency.

Most swine producers will not be required to implement a Hearing Conservation Program. However, this program offers valuable information on noise exposure monitoring, audiometric testing (i.e., hearing tests), and hearing protection. Several regularly occurring swine farm tasks exceed the OSHA-defined threshold of 85 dB, including heat checking, piglet processing, snout snaring, power washing, and feed milling (Figure 1; Humann et al., 2005; Achutan and Tubbs, 2007). Workers who regularly engage in these tasks would benefit from participation in a Hearing Conservation Program.

Pork producers should consider requiring employees to wear hearing protection if:

  • Workers are regularly exposed to 85 dB or more, or
  • If hearing tests determine that a worker is susceptible to noise.

For more information on hearing protection, refer to the OSHA website or PIG Factsheet 16-02-07.

Respiratory protection should be considered for employees working in swine barns, where exposure to gases and dust may be high.

Respiratory protection should be considered for employees working in swine barns, where exposure to gases and dust may be high. Photo: NPB

Respiratory Health: People who work with pigs are exposed to dust particles, gases, and products of infectious agents in the air (Von Essen et al., 2010). As with hearing, certain tasks are likely to increase exposure to harmful agents; for example, dust exposure when handling pigs, or exposure to the gas hydrogen sulfide (H2S) during pit pumping (O’Shaughnessy et al., 2010; Von Essen et al., 2010).

Pulmonary function tests are an important assessment of worker health and can be used to measure if air contaminants such as dust and gases will affect a worker’s lung function. The results of these assessments can then determine the kinds of respiratory personal protective equipment that should be made available to workers on the farm. As described by the American Lung Association (ALA), there are several respiratory tests that measure how well the lungs take in and release air and how well they move gases such as oxygen from the atmosphere into the body’s circulation (ALA, 2023). Each test must be performed by a trained medical professional. The spirometry test involves breathing into a mouthpiece that records the amount of air that is breathed and the rate at which breaths are drawn (airflow). Other tests involve sitting in a clear, sealed box that looks like a telephone booth and breathing in and out into a mouthpiece. Tests that involve breathing a gas such as nitrogen or helium through a tube can also be used. These tests can assess lung volume, or the amount of air present in the lungs. Similar to a hearing test, pulmonary function tests are ideally repeated over time.

The OSHA Standard 1910.134, Respiratory Protection, addresses important issues related to respiratory health. Most pork producers will not be required to implement this standard. However, pork producers may choose to implement a respiratory protection program for their employees, and the Respiratory Protection Standard can be used as a model for development of a respiratory protection program if desired. A variety of personal protection equipment, such as dust masks or respirators, are available to promote lung health and function (Figure 2). For more information on respiratory protection, refer to the OSHA website or PIG Factsheet 16-03-01.


Assessing the health of workers, including potential employees, is important for pork producers. The pre-employment physical is a tool that pork producers can use to match job applicants to a position in a swine facility. However, remember that the ADA does not allow questions about disability until after a conditional job offer is made. Hearing tests and lung function tests are examples of ongoing health testing that may occur in some operations. Health testing can help determine when and if personal protective equipment (i.e., hearing or respiratory protection) is needed in your operation.

References and Citations

Achutan C., and R.L. Tubbs. 2007. A task-based assessment of noise levels at a swine confinement. Journal of Agromedicine. 12(2):55-65. doi:10.1300/J096v12n02_07

ADA National Network. 2023. What limitations does the ADA impose on medical examinations and inquiries about disability? Available online: https://adata.org/top-ada-frequently-asked-questions. Accessed 8 June 2023.

American Lung Association (AMA). 2023. What are lung function tests and why are they done? Available online: https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-procedures-and-tests/lung-function-tests. Accessed 8 June 2023.

Humann, M.J., K.J. Donham, M.L. Jones, C. Achutan, and B.J. Smith. 2005. Occupational noise exposure assessment in intensive swine farrowing systems: Dosimetry, octave band, and specific task analysis. Journal of Agromedicine. 10(1):23-37. doi: 10.1300/J096v10n01_04

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Occupational noise exposure: Standard number 1910.95. Available at: https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1910/1910.95. Accessed 8 June 2023.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Respiratory protection: Standard number 1910.134. Available at: https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1910/1910.134. Accessed 8 June 2023.

O‘Shaughnessy, P.T., K.J. Donham, T.M. Peters, C. Taylor, R. Altmaier, and K.M. Kelly. 2010. A task-specific assessment of swine worker exposure to airborne dust. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene. 7:7-13. doi: 10.1080/15459620903327970

Schaafsma, F.G., N. Mahmud, M.F. Reneman, J.B. Fassier, and F.H.W. Jungbauer. 2016. Pre-employment examinations for preventing injury, disease and sick leave in workers. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. CD008881. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD008881.pub2.

Von Essen S., G. Moore, S. Gibbs, and K.L. Larson. 2010. Respiratory issues in beef and pork production: Recommendations from an expert panel. Journal of Agromedicine. 15(3):216-25. doi: 10.1080/1059924X.2010.486283