Creating meat and poultry products calls for a measure of formulation artistry, but keeping production workers safe and healthy is work science.
Tyson Foods’ beef complex in Emporia, KS, dedicated to creating a range of different kinds of fresh beef products from 4,000 head of cattle daily, depends upon ergonomics and automation to ensure the health and safety of more than 2,000 production team members.
Ergonomics is the science of work, while automation is mechanical assistance for workers.
“Ergonomics is all about making the employees whole,” affirms Mike Fiehler, plant general manager at the complex, a Tyson Fresh Meats Inc. facility. “They need to know you have your arms around them. Ergonomics is doing the right thing for people by making their jobs easier and the workplace fit for employees. In a broader sense, it’s about helping them fit in their world and their environment, which helps them fit in at work.”
To that end, the employment package of benefits for the Emporia team far exceeds the predictable components comprised of wages, health insurance, and time off with pay. In Fiehler’s mind, employers must not only create a proper worksite, but also contribute to the well being of neighborhood residents.
“We have to do everything we can to retain people because they are our most valuable asset,” Fiehler emphasizes. “That means we have to be active in their churches and schools and make them feel part of the community.” To that end, Tyson donates funds to finance various projects such as Cub Scout Troops and provides meat product for various community fundraisers. Plant workers also are given time off with pay to offer their services to the community, especially the school system through a company-sponsored mentoring program.
“We give whatever help the community needs, but we try to funnel the bulk of our aid to benefit children, especially children of our employees,” Fiehler reports. “When you treat people right, they will respect you as a business and a corporation,” he adds, at the same acknowledging that the Emporia workplace philosophy is not simply an altruistic endeavor. It also is about assuming responsibility and employing the best business practices to avoid problems that a diverse workforce can trigger.
 “Turnover is an issue, but we have an excellent training staff,” Fiehler says. “We all work hard to retain people with an intensive program that first ninety days of employment so they will stay.”
Fiehler is a pioneering member of the Emporia diversity council that includes community representatives from various walks-of-life. “We meet regularly and discuss issues we need to work on related to the diverse makeup of our community,” he says.  A majority of the plant’s workforce is Hispanic.
“This plant is twice as big in terms of personnel as the second-biggest employer [in Emporia], which is the local college,” Fiehler says. “We must be active in the communities where our employees live.”
Although community involvement is a critical component, keeping workers safe at the 800,000-square-foot facility heads the agenda of the plant’s ergonomic and safety committee comprised of a range of administrators, supervisors, and hourly ergonomic and safety monitors assigned to the production floor and maintenance department.
Ergonomics monitors inspect and intercede when workers need help in positioning their bodies and tools to gain the benefits of ergonomics. Davy Sharp, an American Indian originally from Oklahoma, is among them. Assigned to the maintenance department repairing machines and conveyors, Sharp – a 10-year plant veteran – understands mechanical tools. Thanks to his training leading to his certification as an ergonomics monitor, he is able to apply his knowledge to human engineering.
Ergonomics is a systems-oriented discipline extending across all aspects of human activity. No single diagnosis is available for ergonomic injuries, however, based on the determination of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), which classifies such injuries broadly as Musculoskeletal Diseases or MSDs. OSHA enforces procedures and processes designed to reduce injuries and illnesses related to MSDs through regulatory guidelines rather rules of law. A guideline is a tool to assist employers in recognizing and controlling hazards, and is strictly voluntary. OSHA deems guidelines more flexible than standards as they can develop quickly and change easily as new information unfolds with scientific advances.
OSHA reports that injuries and illnesses related to MSDs consistently declined in the past 10 years. Carpal tunnel injuries in the meat packing industry with days away from work declined 47 percent between 1992 and 1999 under industry-specific guidelines and focused OSHA enforcement. Meanwhile, strains and sprains with days away from work declined by 61 percent and 64 percent for back injuries.
“Many people don’t know the word ergonomics and confuse it with economics,” notes Pam Purdum, ergonomic liaison and assistant safety coordinator. “I explain it with a real world example such as illustrating why the proper car-seat adjustment is important to reduce stress and strain. It does not have to be some elaborate change to make the job easier. Ergonomics improvement happened in our industry before an official ergonomics program was in place at the federal level.”
Purdum, who hired on at the plant in 1983 on the clean rib and tail bone line initially, moved up to her current position in 1999. She spent two years on the kill floor as a supervisor and rotated into various other processing jobs over the years. Purdum and her team of ergonomic monitors stay on top of the plant’s safety measures including equipment and programs.
“Communication is critical,” she concludes.
Health and safety tools
The safety process at the Emporia plant focuses on improving production performance while minimizing team member exposure to injury. The certified processing safety equipment list at Emporia includes 18 pieces of plant-floor gear such as cut-resistant gloves and sleeves; rubber gloves and sleeves; plastic arm guards; earplugs and hard hats; safety glasses; and steel toe boots. Steel mesh equipment includes gloves and sleeves; split leg legging aprons; and “shark suit” body sheaths.
“We operate in a safety culture and the process starts with the hourly team,” explains Jim Bohrer, safety coordinator at Emporia. “Our philosophy is that safety won’t fail because of a single person. Although supervisors are responsible for the entire facility ceiling to floor and wall to wall, safety starts at top management and the moment a new hire walks through the doors.”
Bohrer, who intended to teach school after college, was an unlikely meat processing job candidate. He caught the eye of Fiehler, however, who traditionally recruits in unlikely places. For example, he recruited a plant supervisor who was employed at a restaurant because he liked the way the man handled himself and his customers.
“I’ve done this job long enough to spot talent,” Fiehler says.
Bohrer joined IBP in 1990 as a production supervisor. By 1994 he was “supervising the supervisors” as a floater, and safety director for the complex by 1999. His training took him to various departments, including time on the kill floor, shipping and receiving, and production. Now, 15 years later, Bohrer, who “intended to stay on the job a short time and then move on,” is eager to continue moving up through the ranks.
Meanwhile, he intends to do his part to keep workers healthy and safe.
Areas of concern on the plant floor include working postures, materials handling, repetitive movements, work-related (MSDs), workplace layout, safety, and health. The following tools aid the process:
• Staff assistance in the development of knife and tool design coupled with job techniques to reduce CTD stressors.
• Adjustable workstation and product conveyor to reduce strain from lifting and stretching movements.
• Mechanical assists for forceful hook pulling or for pulling meat way from the bone.
• Administrative controls, such as job rotations where feasible.
Ergonomics strategies for meat and poultry
As a corporation, Tyson Foods is the world’s largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef, and pork produced at more than 100 processing facilities. A recognized leader in the retail and foodservice markets it serves, Tyson produces one out of every four pounds of chicken, beef, and pork consumed in the United States.
John Tyson, chairman and chief executive officer, intends to capitalize on the company’s core skills with a program incorporating management cross training to prepare “the next generation of leaders.”
Eric Nelson, a Tyson Fresh Meats Inc. assistant operation manager, is among the candidates tapped for extensive training. A Pine Bluff, AR, native, Nelson joined Tyson’s chicken operation with a degree in computer science and a minor in accounting. His training began in live production at the company’s Pine Bluff plant, followed by a stint at the slaughter, deboning, and further-processing facility in Sedalia, MO, as assistant plant manager. He moved to Emporia this year to add beef processing experience to his resume.
“The goal is to integrate people into all phases of the business to make them more valuable overall,” Nelson explains. “There are concepts on the poultry side that may transfer to the beef side, such as the ability to bone shanks by machine rather than by hand. There is more automation available for the poultry side.” NP
Emporia Beef Complex at-a-glance
Location: 50 miles southwest of Topeka in eastern Kansas
Facility size: 800,000 square feet of space
Administrative team: Mike Fiehler, general manager; Eric Nelson, assistant operation manager; Jim Bohrer, safety coordinator; Pam Purdum, ergonomic liaison/assistant safety coordinator; Doug Crockett, training coordinator
Employment population: 2,500
Annual payroll: $63 million
Operations: Carcass beef production and processing; hide treatment; cold storage freezer
Products: Fresh vacuum-packed boxed beef. Bone, fat, trimmings, and hides are recovered and used for various foods, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and clothing.
Customers: Meats and allied products are marketed domestically and internationally targeting wholesalers, retailers, hotels, restaurants, and institutions.
History: IBP purchased the plant from Armour & Co. in November 1967. Production started in May 1969 after expansion and extensive remodeling at the facility. Tyson Foods acquired IBP in September 2001 and renamed it Tyson Fresh Meats Inc.