Tyson, union commemorate workplace-safety progress

by Bryan Salvage
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DAKOTA DUNES, S.D. — Tyson Foods and the United Food and Commercial Workers (U.F.C.W.) have recently completed the twentieth year of a workplace ergonomics program they say is making meat processing jobs safer. Initiated by Tyson Fresh Meats, formerly known as IBP inc., and the U.F.C.W., the program has involved workplace improvements that have helped reduce worker injuries and illnesses.

Ergonomics was not extensively used in the meat industry 20 years ago. Tyson explained that it and the union reached an agreement after an historic Occupational Safety and Health Administration (O.S.H.A.) citation and settlement in late November 1988 followed up with the joint Tyson-U.F.C.W. program to develop a comprehensive ergonomics research program.

The program began early in 1989, with the company’s Dakota City, Neb., beef complex serving as the pilot plant. It included production workers represented by U.F.C.W. Local 222. The program quickly expanded into all company beef and pork plants, due to the success of the pilot.

Key program elements include ongoing ergonomics training for production workers; involving hourly workers as ‘ergonomic monitors’; work site 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.

Thanks to this program, the O.S.H.A. recordable injury and illness rate at the Dakota City plant is currently 67% below the rate recorded in 1991. 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, Tyson has devoted millions of dollars to ergonomically-designed equipment and process improvements, as well as training, which the company believes helped prevent workplace injuries and illnesses, said Jim Lochner, Tyson’s chief operating officer. "However, the real key to the success of this program has been the workers who serve as safety and ergonomics monitors," he added.

Many Tyson engineering projects have been designed to modify workstations and equipment to reduce physical stressors. This includes redesigned knife handles, installing height-adjustable workstations, and use of lighter-weight saws/power tools. Additional modifications included 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, and improved illumination and job rotation. The company also worked to reduce vibrations generated by certain tools and modified personal protective equipment to make it fit better and be more comfortable.

Some major mechanical and process changes have been implemented in Tyson beef and pork plants over the years, said Tom DeRoos, corporate ergonomics program manager. "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 the surface of the pork loins," he added.

Ergonomics played into 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 workstations plus a production flow designed with worker safety and health in mind.

Dennis Golden, training manager/ergonomics liaison at Tyson’s Dakota City plant, has been involved in the ergonomics program since its inception. He said since late 1988 the company has also implemented more than 3,600 "quick fixes" at its Dakota City plant, making minor adjustments, such as moving a gearbox or relocating a knife sanitizer to make the workstation more comfortable for team members.

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