Trumping Safety

Tyson Foods guards its human capital by playing the worker-safety game with a wildcard called ergonomics.
Federal laws notwithstanding, maintaining an injury-free workforce is not merely an industry responsibility but an essential business obligation. Translated, that means ensuring that personnel remain healthy in mind, body, and spirit — especially on the production floor where ergonomics is an essential endeavor.
Tyson Foods, a major industry employer based in Springdale, AR, is a frontline player in the worker-safety game. Operating 300 domestic and international facilities and offices with a combined workforce of 114,000 members, the global food company stands as a market leader capable of producing a broad selection of fresh and prepared chicken, beef, and pork products for retail and foodservice sales.
“We’ve learned that ergonomics is more than just an injury and illness prevention strategy,” John Lea, Tyson’s senior group vice president and chief development officer, reports. “It’s a way of improving quality and efficiency of our operations, as well as enhancing the health and safety of the people we depend upon to operate successfully.”
Ratcheting up workplace safety
People represent the centerpiece of Tyson’s success, whether at the management level or on the production side of the operation.
“We don’t want to see anyone injured on the job, so we’re continually looking at ways to make improvement in work stations, tools, and processes,” affirms Kevin Igli, Tyson’s vice president of environment, health, and safety. “Some of the critical components in our efforts have included monitoring injury and illness trends and conducting risk assessments. We’ve also looked at the number of people affected, as well as various engineering administrative and work method controls. Guidance documents, such as OSHA’s [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] Red Meat and Poultry guidelines, have also been very helpful.”
Over the years, Tyson also worked with a variety of leading ergonomics consultants to develop and refine aspects of its ergonomics process.
“They helped with program development, training, risk assessment, as well as special projects,” Lea explains. “We also employ a certified professional ergonomist to lead the process internally.”
Regulatory ergonomics
Cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs) represent the major threat to the health of workers assigned to duties in the nation’s meat processing plants, triggering the 1970 Occupation Safety and Health Act (OSH Act). The Act placed the responsibility for creating a workplace free from recognized serious hazards, including the prevention and control of ergonomic hazards, on the shoulders of industry employers.
The 1990 partnership between the U.S. meat industry, OSHA, and the United Food and Commercial Workers union resulted in “model” Voluntary Ergonomic Guidelines for the meat packing industry. Under the guidelines, a successful ergonomic strategy includes workplace analysis, hazard prevention and control, medical management, and training and education.
Under OSHA, employers are responsible for employee training, implementing effective safety programs, maintaining equipment, and continually assessing the workplace to remove hazards, including damaged and defective equipment.
Worker-safety report card
Based on the latest available Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, the meat products industry – comprising meat packing, meat processing, and poultry processing – incurs 10.3 injuries per 100 full-time workers per year. The majority of the injuries reported required no lost work time or restricted work activity. BLS began recording such data in the early 1970s. In the past 10 years, injury and illness rates dropped by more than 50 percent.
To be sure, the death or critical injury of a single worker represents a set back for the combined meat and poultry industry with its labor-intensive nature. Safe workplace benefits include increased productivity, improved employee morale, reduced absenteeism, and decreasing expenses related to injury and illness.
Safe workplace partnership
A 2001 partnership between Tyson and OSHA underscored the company’s commitment to find ways to enhance worker-safety and health programs, especially at two of its facilities in Clarksville, AR, and Monett, MO – both dedicated to first-processing and further-processing chicken production.
“We believe this effort will offer new ways and opportunities for us to work together and focus cooperatively on the thing that is most important to all of the partners – the health and safety of our team members” commented Greg Lee, chief administrative officer and international president.
The agreement calls for OSHA to work with Tyson’s senior staff members, site managers, and team members to identify actions that will strengthen the company’s safety and health programs.
“We take the safety of our people very seriously and are committed to preventing workplace injuries and illness,” Lea affirms “We have safety and health programs and policies in all our plants. They include ongoing training for production workers and the involvement of safety committee. We want people to know that workplace safety is everybody’s business.”
Although OSHA never cited Tyson on ergonomics grounds, companies it acquired over the years brought their citations to the family. Lea points to IBP, acquired in September 2001, and Hudson Foods, acquired in 1998.
“Both had previous citations,” he says. “IBP [cited in the late eighties] subsequently developed a very comprehensive and highly regarded ergonomics program for beef and pork processing. Hudson immediately adopted the Tyson’s proven approach to workplace safety and ergonomics.”
This year in July, the company’s Emporia, KS, facility  (see “Human Engineering”) operating under Tyson Fresh Meats Inc., reached a safety milestone. The A-shift rendering team accumulated 850 days without an injury. The accomplishment was no mystery to Tim Armour, rendering general supervisor.
“The things they [team members] see and learn about safety aren’t forgotten the next day,” he says. “They not only ‘talk the talk;’ they ‘walk the walk.’ They hold daily safety meetings, where nothing is sacred. If something needs to be said about a safety concern, they say it.”
Critical features of the Emporia program include strict attention to safety program details, effective communication at all levels, supervisory leadership, and watching out for each other.
“We commit significant time and resources to our workplace safety and ergonomics efforts,” Lea reports. “We’re also devoted to developing, manufacturing, and installing automated and robotic equipment designed to either eliminate physically demanding jobs or make them easier.” NP