Worker safety matters

by Bob Sims
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Tyson Foods
Tyson Foods Inc. has placed worker safety at the top of the priority list and continues to change the culture.
 
While worker safety has always been of high importance with operations workers at Tyson Foods Inc., the mindset of meat processing being inherently dangerous has evolved as training and equipment has improved. Historically the meat industry has had the stigma of high injury and illness rates, but Tyson is changing that under the leadership of Steve Stouffer, president of Tyson Fresh Meats.

For the past three years, Tyson Fresh Meats and its executives, led by Stouffer, have worked diligently to change a culture that’s been prevalent in the meat processing industry for the last 50 years.

“I would tell you that about three years ago there was a conscientious decision that said we are going to fix safety,” Stouffer says. “What we have to do is make some short-term sacrifices to make that happen. When we were given that cart blanche to head down that path, we in the fresh meat side of the equation, jumped in with both feet.”

Tyson Foods brought in a consulting group to assist in making the cultural shift it sought into a reality. Stouffer worked with the group and learned to ask the right questions and implement policies that would work and achieve the desired results. Two of the themes that came through loud and clear were persistence and consistency. The other catalyst for the change has been communication across every level.

“The consulting group came in here and drove the model for us with the expectation and the intention that we will take that model and build it internally with their help and then perpetuate it as we go forward, keeping it consistent,” Stouffer says. “That is exactly what has to happen, and the bottom line is we have to teach our team leaders and our managers how to communicate. That’s been a big piece of this.”

The first piece of productive communication is to literally speak the same language. Tyson Foods has increased its interpreter program so plants have the personnel to facilitate communication between those speaking different languages. “There are some plants that might have as many as 29 different languages,” Stouffer says. The ability to communicate directly is imperative. Another key is that the new protocols be more than the historical model of scheduled safety meetings.

“It’s a daily communication,” Stouffer says. “This isn’t just sitting down once a month and having a line meeting, this is daily one-on-one communication.”

Tyson Fresh Meats’ upper management involves itself in the process through visiting plants, often as a team led by Stouffer, and communicating with managers, superintendents and line workers at least once a month. During these plant visits, Stouffer and his team talk about safety and safety only.

“We’ll sit down and talk about what’s working, what’s not working, what do we have to fix, what do you need?” he says.

Stouffer describes himself as the chief cheerleader and barrier blocker. He takes it upon himself to give plants the resources they need to make the environment safer, while at the same time removing anything that blocks the initiative of worker safety. He’s received cart blanche to change the worker safety culture at Tyson Foods and uses it. The company has made a considerable financial investment in fixing, redesigning and remodeling its facilities to keep workers out of harm’s way, he adds.

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