Despite improvements cited by company officials, injury rates among workers at a Perdue chicken processing plant in Lewiston, North Carolina have barely improved in almost 20 years, according to a report released Nov. 13 by researchers at Duke University Medical Center, the News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) reports.

The study, which was reported in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, was led by Hester Lipscomb, an associate professor of occupational and environmental medicine at Duke. The findings estimate that workers suffer neck, hand and back injuries at roughly twice the rate of other low-paying jobs in the rural Bertie County community about 100 miles northeast of Raleigh.

Lipscomb said depression rates also run significantly higher among the Perdue workers, most of whom are black women.

"It's very disheartening," Lipscomb said. "The plant was cited by North Carolina for pretty egregious conditions almost 20 years ago, and while things have certainly changed at the plant, we don't see significant improvement in the health of the women in that plant."

Perdue made a series of workplace changes after it was fined $39,000 by the state in 1989 following a state ergonomics investigation.

Perdue spokesman Julie DeYoung said those changes included an onsite medical clinic that employees can visit during their shifts without losing pay. The company also provides advice on avoiding injuries and reassigns workers if a job assignment aggravates physical problems, she said.

"The study's findings are completely at odds with our own first-hand knowledge and experience in treating associates every day in our onsite clinics," DeYoung said. "We've made great progress in treating our ergonomic issues."

DeYoung said the number of incidents reported to the state's Occupational Safety and Health Administration is 44 percent better than the industry average and workers have logged six million hours without losing time to accidents.

But Lipscomb said many workers told researchers they won't report injuries because they are afraid they will lose their jobs.

Researchers interviewed 291 women every six months for three years in addition to conducting physicals to monitor repetitive-motion injuries and health issues such as obesity and depression.

About 2,500 workers process more than 400,000 chickens a day at the Lewiston plant, Lipscomb said.