pork belly comb remover

The Best Way to Remove Belly Combs

Americans love bacon.

According to Statista, 18.31 million Americans used 5 pounds or more of bacon in 2018 alone. If you drop that amount down to 2 pounds, the number skyrockets to over 60 million.

Global bacon market trends show that it’s not just a breakfast meat anymore, but is largely used for flavoring many other foods such as cocktails, popcorn, lip balm, the baking industry as bacon bars, bacon chocolates,  and ice creams.

A Growing Trend

Our love of bacon shows no signs of slowing down.

bacon consumed from 2011-2018

The global bacon market hit $55.75 billion in 2016 and is projected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.13% between 2018 and 2023. Last year alone, bacon reached a 78.8 percent household penetration in 97,935 US households.

According to Mordor Intelligence, rapid population growth, rising disposable income levels and urbanization will further magnify world demand to around 340 million tonnes by 2022.

Bacon is here to stay — and many processors are looking for ways to increase speed and safety when processing bacon.

A Safety Concern

One of the largest safety risks in bacon processing comes in removing combs from cooked pork bellies.

There isn’t a lot of great technology on the market to automate belly comb removal, meaning most plants big and small still rely on two main methods for removing combs.

Removal by Hand

The most common method found in bacon processing facilities to remove belly combs is by hand.

Operators move the belly to the end of a table, hit the comb with their fist to loosen it, and then yank it out.

While this method is easy and requires little in the way of equipment investment, it poses a very high risk of worker injury.

The task of repeatedly hitting the belly comb with one’s fist checks the box for two of the three primary risk factors for a musculoskeletal disorder:

  • Forceful Exertion. The force required to hit the belly comb and dislodge it, exerted over a long period of time, can result in fatigue and physical damage to the body. Sometimes just a single hit can lead to damage if not performed properly.
  • Repetitive Tasks. Hitting belly combs day in and day out can wear away at joints, muscles, and tendons and lead to MSD’s.

Hitting the belly comb incorrectly, with too much force, or slightly off target can cause other injuries as well, such as cuts, scrapes, bruising, or in rare cases a broken finger or wrist.

Hand-held Remover

In an effort to avoid the above risks associated with removing belly combs by hand, many processors have started using a hand-held remover.

hand held belly comb remover

Shaped like a gun, this device has hooks on the end that you place inside the wire framework of the belly comb. A pull of the trigger releases the pneumatics and applies force to pull the belly comb out of the belly.

While this reduces the risk of injuries associated with hitting the belly comb with a fist, hand-held removers check the box for a different primary risk factor and two secondary risk factors of musculoskeletal disorders:

  • Awkward Posture. Operators need to hold the hand-held remover at weird and unnatural angles to get it hooked into the belly comb. This places excessive stress and force on joints and overloads the muscles, leading to fatigue. When joints are worked outside of this normal range for long periods of time, the risk for MSD’s increase.
  • Vibration. Pulling the trigger on these devices causes slight vibrations. Prolonged exposure to vibration can cause damage to nerves and blood vessels.
  • Contact Pressure. Any point where external pressure is applied to soft tissues of the body can become a point of injury. The act of holding the device itself is a risk of injury.

Cost of Injuries

Why does all this matter?

Musculoskeletal disorders come with a high price tag.

According to Fit2WRK, the direct cost for all U.S. workers out of work due to MSD injuries is estimated at $13-20 billion annually, with indirect costs between $26 and $110 billion annually.

According to research done by The Burden of Musculoskeletal Diseases in the United States, musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) accounted for nearly one-third (30.5%) of the 933,200 injuries involving days away from work in 2010. In addition, MSD injuries consistently across the years result in more median days away from work than all workplace injuries.

A BLS report states that the food production industry saw injury rates in 2008 of 6.2 cases per 100 full-time workers.

If half of those injuries were a lost time claim, the direct worker’s compensation costs would be $159,000 with indirect costs that typical double this number — $318,000 for 3 claims.

The average profit margin among the top 10 food producers is only 13%, meaning an employer with just 100 workers would have to generate nearly $2.5 million in new revenue just to cover the cost of work-related injuries.

A Safer Way

Forceful exertion, awkward posture, and repetitive motion tasks — the three primary risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders — are prevalent in removing belly combs by hand or with a hand-held remover.

The best way to reduce the risk of injuries is to remove exposure to these primary risk factors.

According to the professionals over at ErgoPlus, a proactive ergonomics process identifies ergonomic risk factors and then reduces them through engineering and administrative controls before an injury occurs.

Solution Checklist

When applied to the processing of removing belly combs, this means finding a solution that:

  • Doesn’t require hitting or yanking the combs
  • Doesn’t require holding a tool
  • Doesn’t require twisting the wrist to get hooks into the combs
  • Eliminates awkward angles and posture
  • Eliminates repetitive motions
  • Provides machine assistance for pulling out combs

Reducing Injuries, Literally

Approximately $1 out of every $3 in workers compensation costs are attributed to musculoskeletal disorders, and with MSD injury rates are higher in food manufacturing than the average of other manufacturing industries, it’s important to invest in solutions that reduce those risks.

Research has shown that proper ergonomics can reduce the number of MSDs by 51 to 63 percent, lower the incidence rate by 45 to 69 percent, and decrease workers’ compensation costs by 60 to 74 percent. Other studies have shown positive outcomes such as 65 to 79 percent reduction in lost workdays; 23 to 49 percent reduction in employee turnover; 35 percent decrease in first-aid cases; and 50 percent decrease in modified-duty cases.

Ideally, food processors should look for a solution that removes the worker from the actual function of pulling the comb out of the pork belly.

Take an automated comb puller for example (one in which you place the belly, comb first, into the machine and it pulls the comb out).

One of these machines meets all the criteria above for reducing the exposure to the risk factors of musculoskeletal disorders and increases the number of combs that can be removed.

Advantages of Automated Comb Removers

Automated comb removers have a number of advantages:

  • Ergonomically safe. Reduces the risk of wrist, hand, and shoulder injuries caused by manually removing belly combs.
  • Increased output. An automated system can remove more combs per hour than a worker can by hand or with a hand-held device.
  • Decreased operating expenses. Automated removers typically require only one operator and can do the work normally covered by two or more workers. This results in less operating costs than removing by hand.

Invest in Safety

When scaling up your bacon production or trying to improve safety in your facility, investing in an automated belly comb remover is a wise choice.

Not only will it drastically reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disorders (by 45 to 69 percent!), but you’ll be able to remove more combs with fewer employees to save time and money.