May 1, 2006
By Barbara Young,
Industry employers are responsible for safety measures to prevent product from contamination and employees from workplace violence.
A meat industry plant security official tells a chilling story involving a disgruntled employee, the plant’s human resources department, and a discharging shotgun. The incident reads like a plot in a novel.
Angered over disciplinary action leading to his suspension, an employee leaves work only to soon return with a 12-gauge shotgun, which he fires several times before police arrive to subdue and arrest him.
Thanks to quick and decisive action by plant officials, the enraged employee encountered no people as he made his way through the plant’s administrative office and on to the production floor. People had been evacuated immediately, thanks to a security guard’s warning by radio.
Joe Robertson, Tyson’s director of corporate and global security, says taking the proper steps from start to finish can minimize such incidents and prevent the loss of life.
“The goal is to delay the perpetrator by any means until the local authorities can get there,” says Robertson who knows much about safeguarding plant facilities, food products and company employees.
Robertson has spent his entire professional life fighting crime — first as a public servant and now in private enterprise. His 15 years in public law enforcement included a stint as an undercover drug enforcement agent for the U.S. Department of Justice and sheriff in Neosho County, Kan. He spent 15 years in service at IBP, which Tyson acquired in 2001.
“Security is not rocket science, but when it comes to the safety of company assets and protecting team members, it is just as important and requires the right attitude to accomplish objectives and goals,” Robertson says. “It means doing what makes the most sense, when the facts are obvious that it’s a good idea and the benefits are without question.”
America began recalibrating its balance between convenience and security in the wake of deaths and property destruction in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
“That tragedy pushed security in the meat industry to a new level, and we are doing everything we can to make our customers feel better about the safety of our products, which means leaving nothing to chance,” Robertson says.
That means safeguards against property theft, product contamination, sabotage of equipment and/or process, workplace violence and/or homicide, terrorism, and intentional chemical releases that can injure or kill.
“Perpetrators must have access to the facility to carry out any of these threats,” Robertson emphasizes.
That being the case, Robertson recommends a plant security plan with the following objectives:
Deter with fencing, security officer presence, lighting, closed-circuit TV, identification and bag inspections.
Deny access with locked doors and gates, and security officers.
Delay entrance with fencing and by blocking direct avenues of approach.
Detect potential threats with closed-circuit TV, company personnel and security officers.
Executing such a plan requires input from key plant team members including representatives from security, human resources, health services, safety and operations, Robertson says. A written communication alert procedure should outline the roles of U.S. Department of Agriculture officials and plant operation and administrative personnel. Individuals should be assigned specific responsibilities, and evacuation procedures should be established.
“Controlling and limiting access at all points of entry is important,” Robertson says. “This can be done with exterior lighting to illuminate the plant’s exterior, especially at product storage locations, employee parking, chemical storage areas and security checkpoints.”
Company officials must also watch for employee aggression and have a policy in place to handle such matters.
“Something could start with an argument,” Robertson notes. “The minute somebody says ‘stab,’ ‘kill’ or ‘shoot,’ immediate action is required. That person should be removed and appropriate action taken.”
Robertson says when violence is imminent leading to employee dismissal, termination should take place away from the building, preferably at outside security offices if they exist. This prevents hostile reactions that threaten others inside the building.
To be sure, violence in the workplace is a growing phenomenon, and the food industry has not gone unscathed. In 2003, a Michigan supermarket employee was indicted for intentionally contaminating ground beef with anicotine-based pesticide that made more than 90 people sick. Consider the deaths at a Kansas City, Kan., meat plant where an employee shot himself and five others. The shooting spree last year in an Atlanta courthouse ended in four deaths before the offender surrendered.
Based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 631 workplace homicides in 2003, with guns accounting for 75 percent of the deaths.
U.S. Department of Labor estimates indicate that workplace violence costs American companies $5 billion annually, which is reflected in low productivity, high employee stress levels, increased health-care bills, absenteeism, turnover and lawsuits.
Workplace violence and preventive measures moved up on the USDA’s business agenda, when two federal compliance officers and a state investigator were killed at a sausage plant in San Leandro, Calif., in 2000. The owner of the plant was convicted of murder.
The tragedy triggered a new USDA initiative aimed at strengthening relationships between inspectors and the plants they monitor.
Tactics include the following:
Periodic meetings between plant personnel and inspectors to solve problems early.
Consistent application of rules and scientific principles through a new review and correlation activity conducted by the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) Technical Service Center.
Expedited appeals and responses using new automated inspection scheduling and reporting software to track appeals from the plant level, through field supervisors and district offices to headquarters.
Awareness campaign designed to explain why inspectors and compliance officers may require law-enforcement backup.
Provide cellular phones, protective clothing and new identification cards that clearly identify the enforcement role for compliance personnel and recognition plaques for police units assisting FSIS in high-risk situations.
When violence strikes in a processing plant, inspectors “suspend” operations and leave the premises. The plant remains closed until USDA requirements are met for reopening. They include a letter of assurance detailing the company’s plan for securing the facility, its safeguards against future incidents, and notification procedures to inform FSIS of a threatening situation. NP