Dakota Dunes, South Dakota, The nation’s leading meat processor and the country’s largest union representing meatpacking and food processing workers have just completed the twentieth year of a workplace ergonomics program that is making meat processing jobs safer.
The ground-breaking program initiated by Tyson Fresh Meats, formerly known as IBP, and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union has involved workplace improvements that have helped reduce worker injuries and illnesses, such as strains and sprains.
Ergonomics, which is the science of designing the workplace to fit the worker, had not been extensively used in the meat industry until the company and union reached an agreement after an historic OSHA citation and settlement in late November 1988 followed up with the joint Tyson-UFCW program to develop a comprehensive ergonomics research program.
The program got underway in early 1989, with the company’s Dakota City, Nebraska, beef complex serving as the pilot plant and production workers represented by UFCW Local 222 actively involved. Due to the success of the pilot, the program was quickly expanded to all of the company’s beef and pork plants.
Some of the key elements of the program include ongoing ergonomics training for production workers; the involvement of hourly workers as ‘ergonomic monitors’; worksite analysis and the redesign of work stations and equipment; and a medical management program focused on early detection and treatment of workplace injuries and illnesses.
Tyson and UFCW leaders believe the program has made a difference. For example, the OSHA recordable injury and illness rate at the Dakota City plant is currently running 67% below the rate recorded in 1991. Meanwhile, the current rate of injuries and illnesses at Dakota City requiring the involvement of a physician is 73% below 1991 levels.
“Over the past 20 years, our company has devoted millions of dollars in ergonomically-designed equipment and process improvements, as well as training, which we believe have helped prevent workplace injuries and illnesses,” said Jim Lochner, chief operating officer of Tyson Foods. “However, the real key to the success of this program has been the workers who serve as safety and ergonomics monitors. The input we’ve received from hourly production workers and the participation of our plant and corporate management teams, have been invaluable.”
“What this program shows is that when workers have input on working conditions, when they are part of the decision-making process, you come up with a better, safer environment—and that’s good for everybody,” said UFCW Meatpacking, Manufacturing, and Food Processing Division Director Mark Lauritsen. “It works because everyone is involved from Tyson management to UFCW leaders, ergo monitors and production workers.”
“The union and Tyson have worked together to make this ergonomics program what it is today (and) I think we’re way ahead of the industry with our program,” said Marvin Harrington, President of UFCW Local 222, which represents workers at the Dakota City plant. “We’re proud the program is part of our UFCW contract with Tyson. We train UFCW members on how to identify hazards and recommend fixes. Having both Tyson management and UFCW members engaged on detecting hazards makes for an efficient process.”
Tyson has been involved in numerous engineering projects designed to modify work stations and equipment in order to reduce physical stressors on the job. Examples include redesigned knife handles, height-adjustable work stations, use of lighter-weight saws/power tools, hydraulic/mechanical assists to lift or separate product, lower overhead chains and conveyors to eliminate reaching over shoulder height, product diverters on conveyor lines to bring product closer to workers, comfortable/level floor surfaces, improved illumination and job rotation. The company has also worked to reduce the vibration generated by certain tools and modified personal protective equipment to make it fit better and be more comfortable.
“We’ve implemented some major mechanical and process changes in our beef and pork plants over the years,” said Tom DeRoos, corporate ergonomics program manager for Tyson. “This includes equipment designed to replace some of what had previously been done manually by production workers. For example, many of our pork plants have automatic loin trimmers to remove fat from surface of the pork loins.”
Ergonomics were part of the design of Tyson’s new, multi-million dollar beef processing floor at Dakota City. The new addition, which became operational in early 2006, includes adjustable work stations as well as a production flow designed with worker safety and health in mind.
But not all of the ergonomic improvements have involved major changes. “Many of them have been what we call ‘quick fixes,’ which are projects that can be done in a matter of a few days,” said Dennis Golden, training manager/ergonomics liaison at Tyson’s Dakota City plant, who has been involved in the ergonomics program since its inception. “For example, since late 1988 we’ve implemented more than 3,600 quick fixes at our Dakota City plant, making minor adjustments such as moving a gear box or relocating a knife sanitizer to make the work station more comfortable for team members.”
“I’ve been involved with the ergo program from the start as a UFCW member serving on a monitoring committee and as a union representative,” said Carmen Hacht, Local 222 Recorder. “The key to making it work is monitors making the rounds, surveying workers, documenting the kind of strains people are feeling, then following up and making sure that the fixes make a positive difference.”
Effective medical management is also essential to the ergonomics program. Its focus is early reporting and treatment of any workplace injuries or illnesses. “We require our team members to report all work-related injuries or illnesses, no matter how minor they believe them to be,” said DeRoos. “By immediately assessing and treating such injuries or illnesses, we’re often able to help reduce the severity and duration.”
Tyson Fresh Meats currently operates eight beef plant and six pork plants in the United States. In addition to Dakota City, this includes beef plants in Amarillo, Texas; Denison, Iowa; Joslin, Illinois; Emporia, Kansas; Finney County, Kansas; Lexington, Nebraska; and Pasco, Washington. The company’s pork plants are in Logansport, Indiana; Louisa County, Iowa; Storm Lake, Iowa; Perry, Iowa; Waterloo, Iowa; and Madison, Nebraska. The UFCW represents workers at Tyson plants in Dakota City, Joslin, Perry, Logansport and Waterloo.