Safety Rules
By Deborah Silver,
Contributing Editor
Increasing numbers of meat processors are combining government and in-house worker-safety programs to ensure the well-being of employees on all plant fronts.
Meat-plant safety has come a long way since the Union Stockyards opened in Chicago in 1865. Compared to the grim picture of working conditions in those early days, today’s plant, supported by automation, mechanization, and industry and government oversight, is a work of art – efficient, innovative and, yes, safe.
The numbers tell the story. In 2003, the total recordable cases of injuries or illness in the meat industry dropped to about 10 percent, compared to 30 percent in 1991, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That downward trend was evident in all three industry groupings included in the data: Red meat slaughter plunged from 46 percent to 13 percent, meat processing fell from 21 percent to 11 percent, and the poultry industry went from 23 percent to 8 percent. And the majority of those injuries that were reported required no lost work time or restricted work activity.
OSHA alliances
Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods is certainly a major player in the worker-safety game, with 300 domestic and international facilities and a workforce of 114,000. “We take the safety of our people very seriously and are committed to preventing workplace injuries and illnesses,” says John Lea, Tyson senior group vice president and chief development officer. “We have safety and health programs and policies in all our plants, including ongoing training for production workers and safety committees.”
A 2001 partnership between Tyson and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) instituted at two of its facilities in Clarksville, Ark., and Monett, Mo., both dedicated to first-processing and further-processing chicken production, underscores the company’s commitment to bolstering safety and health programs.  That agreement calls for OSHA to work with Tyson’s senior staff members, site managers and team members to identify actions that will strengthen those facilities’ safety and health strategies.
Tyson’s plant in Emporia, Kan., operating under Tyson Fresh Meats Inc., reached another kind of safety milestone last year. Its A-shift rendering team accumulated 850 days without an injury. That accomplishment came as no surprise to Tim Armour, the plant’s rendering general supervisor “The things the [team members] see and learn about safety are remembered the next day,” he says. “Safety meetings are held daily, and nothing is held back. If something needs to be said about a safety concern, it’s stated loud and clear.”
Critical features of the Emporia program include strict attention to safety-program details, effective communication at all levels and supervisory leadership. Significant effort also goes into the plant’s ergonomics strategy to prevent musculoskeletal injuries (see “Avoiding Ergonomic Problems,” p. 42).
“We’re dedicated to developing, manufacturing and installing automated and robotic equipment that will either eliminate physically demanding jobs or make those jobs easier,” says Lea. “Ergonomics is more than an injury and illness prevention strategy. It allows us to improve the quality and efficiency of our operations, as well as enhance the health and safety of the people we rely on to operate successfully.”
Tyson credits guidance documents, such as OSHA’s guidelines for the red meat and poultry industries as helping the company establish safer work environments. The company also conducts its own internal risk assessments and has worked with a variety of leading ergonomics consultants to develop and refine aspects of its ergonomics program.
Ergonomics, of course, is not a new phenomenon. Cumulative trauma disorders triggered the 1970 Occupation Safety and Health Act, which placed the burden of creating a workplace free of recognized serious hazards – including ergonomic ones – squarely on the shoulders of industry employers. Twenty years later, a partnership between the U.S. meat industry, OSHA, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union resulted in “Voluntary Ergonomic Guidelines” for the meat-packing industry, which offers a framework for a successful ergonomics strategy, including site analysis, hazard prevention and control, medical management, and training and education.
VPP players
OSHA also credits its Voluntary Protection Program (VPP), implemented in the 1980s, as slowly but surely advancing the cause of worker safety and health (see “Employee Matters: Safe keeping,” p. 8). That program, which set performance-based criteria for a managed safety and health system, invites facilities to apply for VPP status and then assesses applicants against established criteria. VPP rankings — Star, Merit and Star Demonstration — are bestowed upon plants that implement management systems that provide integrated, comprehensive and ongoing safety and health protection that exceed OSHA’s required standards.
Aurora Packing Co. in Aurora, Ill., has been involved with VPP since the program’s inception and is a Star performer. Star status recognizes work sites with exemplary health and safety programs that far exceed the agency’s minimum regulatory requirements. Other meatpackers and processors with VPP Star facilities are Taylor Packing Co. in Wyalusing, Pa.; Armour Swift-Eckrich in Jonesboro, Ark., and Saint Charles, Ill.; Cargill Turkey Products in Harrisonburg, Va.; and Kraft in Kirksville, Mo., Springfield, Mo., and Medford, Wis.
According to Michael Fagel, corporate risk manager for Aurora Packing, VPP requires a major commitment from management and employees. “VPP standards are higher than those of OSHA,” he says. “You really have to make sure that you’re on top of the situation when you commit to VPP.”
The primary advantage, of course, is improved safety. “You can’t put a dollar figure on that,” says Fagel. “What we’ve done is empowered the workers to do things better. That means give them the appropriate training in a language they understand.”
Aurora has put in place hundreds of VPP-based safety improvements. “Many of them were brought to us by employees. It’s all about active input and involvement from the people who do the job,” says Fagel. He admits that getting employees to accept VPP standards demanded patience and gradual change. “It’s a culture shift, so you have to give it time,” he says. “In all honesty, it takes years.”
Minneapolis-based Cargill Meat Solutions’ turkey-products division also is working hard to put its plants under the VPP umbrella. “It doesn’t change how we operate daily,” says Paul Lawrence, assistant vice president and general manager of the company’s complex in Springdale, Ark. “VPP status is prestigious in our labor-intensive environment. It’s an endorsement of things we work on daily to treat people right and send them home in the same condition that they came to work.” The Springdale facility, for example, which processes more than 13 million live male and female turkeys annually on a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week basis, amassed 10 million man-hours with no lost work time accidents.
New alliances
ConAgra’s Refrigerated Prepared Foods’ Brown ‘N Serve plant in St. Charles, Ill., production site of cooked pork, beef and turkey breakfast sausage links and patties, is another VPP success story, reducing worker compensation costs by some 90 percent and increasing productivity by more than 15 percent since it began participating in the late-1990s.    
At that time, ConAgra also entered into a five-year partnership with OSHA and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union to create models of safety and health excellence at nine of its facilities, including its Armour Brown ‘N Serve facility. Six of the nine participating plants have since experienced total injury incident rate reductions of up to 48 percent with an average of about 35 percent. Each site identified and corrected 800 workplace hazards, and workers’ compensation costs fell a reported 24 percent on average.
“OSHA’s relationship with meat plants has historically not been under the most pleasant conditions, since it typically involves a search warrant or a subpoena,” says Jerry Ryan, OSHA’s VPP manager. “We’re now affecting change with real understanding about partnering with the industry.” According to Ryan, VPP is successful because it stimulates a cultural change in which labor and management partnerships balance productivity with safety, health and profitability. NP
OSHA's input
The following is an excerpt from OSHA’s “Ergonomics Program Management Guidelines For Meatpacking Plants.” To view the entire report, visit
Why meatpacking? Most importantly, CTDs [cumulative trauma disorders] are particularly prevalent in the meatpacking industry. Although ergonomic hazards are by no means confined to meatpacking, the incidence and severity of CTDs and other workplace injuries and illnesses in this industry demand that effective programs be implemented to protect workers from these hazards. These should be part of the employer’s overall safety and health management program.
Commitment and involvement are complementary and essential elements of a sound safety and health program. Commitment by management provides the organizational resources and motivating force necessary to deal effectively with ergonomic hazards.
Employee involvement and feedback through clearly established procedures are likewise essential, both to identify existing and potential hazards and to develop and implement an effective way to abate such hazards.
A. Commitment by Top Management
The implementation of an effective ergonomics program includes a commitment by the employer to provide the visible involvement of top management, so that all employees, from management to line workers, fully understand that management has a serious commitment to the program. An effective program should have a team approach, with top management as the team leader, and should include the following:
1. Management’s involvement demonstrated through personal concern for employee safety and health by the priority placed on eliminating the ergonomic hazards.
2. A policy that places safety and health on the same level of importance as production. The responsible implementation of this policy requires management to integrate production processes and safety and health protection to assure that this protection is part of the daily production activity within each facility.
3. Employer commitment to assign and communicate the responsibility for the various aspects of the ergonomics program so that all managers, supervisors and employees involved know what is expected of them.
4. Employer commitment to provide adequate authority and resources to all responsible parties, so that assigned responsibilities can be met.
5. Employer commitment to ensure that each manager, supervisor and employee responsible for the ergonomics program in the workplace is accountable for carrying out those responsibilities.
B . Written Program
Effective implementation requires a written program for job safety & health and ergonomics that is endorsed and advocated by the highest level of management and that outlines the employer’s goals and plans. This written program should be suitable for the size and complexity of the workplace operations, and should permit these guidelines to be applied to the specific situation of each plant.
The written program should be communicated to all personnel, as it encompasses the total workplace, regardless of number of workers employed or the number of work shifts. It should establish clear goals, and objectives to meet those goals, that are communicated to and understood by all members of the organization.
The written program should include the earliest feasible implementation dates for completion of each program element.
C. Employee Involvement
An effective program includes a commitment by the employer to provide for and encourage employee involvement in the ergonomics program and in decisions that affect worker safety and health, including the following:
1. An employee complaint or suggestion procedure that allows workers to bring their concerns to management and provide feedback without fear of reprisal.
2. A procedure that encourages prompt and accurate reporting of signs and symptoms of CTDs by employees so that they can be evaluated and, if warranted, treated.
3. Safety and health committees that receive information on ergonomic problem areas, analyze them, and make recommendations for corrective action.
4. Ergonomic teams or monitors with the required skills to identify and analyze jobs for ergonomic stress and recommend solutions. NP
Avoiding ergonomic problems
As with most industries, processing-plant ergonomics complaints – tendinitis, carpel tunnel syndrome and rotator cuff injuries, for example – involve the hands and wrists. Solutions include eliminating twisting motions of the wrists through the use of wrist braces or other ergonomic tools, investing in equipment such as automated machines and advanced cutting tools, and rotating jobs.
Other solutions:
• Audit your workforce, looking for workers who must assume awkward positions for extended periods. Activities as harmless as gazing upward for extended periods of time, lifting weights away from the body, keeping arms away from the body with no support, bending at an awkward angle or twisting the hips qualify.
• Form worker committees to gather suggestions from your workforce.
• Use hydraulic adjustable stands for workers who perform heavy tasks such as trimming carcasses.
• Use mechanical assists for really difficult tasks such as separating meat from bone.
• Lower conveyor belts so workers are not required to reach up to throw bones and scrap onto a belt.
• Install rollers where heavy weights have to be pushed on a routine basis.
• Increase staffing to reduce repetitive tasks.