Tyson Foods has proven the relationship between meat processors and union officials doesn’t have to be adversarial. Indeed, when both sides focus on a common goal, the achievements can surprise even hard-line skeptics.

An historic Occupational Safety and Health Administration citation and settlement issued in November 1988, involving IBP inc. – which was acquired by Tyson Foods in September 2001 and later became Tyson Fresh Meats Inc. in May 2003 – led to developing a successful joint Tyson-United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) ergonomics program to reduce workplace injuries.

Launched at Tyson Fresh Meats’ 1.1 million sq. ft. beef processing complex in Dakota City, Neb., the program has been in place for 20 years and the results have exceeded almost all expectations. The OSHA recordable injury and illness rate at the complex is 67 percent below the rate recorded in 1991. Also, the rate of injuries and illnesses at Dakota City requiring a physician is 73 percent below 1991 levels. A healthy workforce has also resulted in a healthier bottom line for the beef operation.

“This program has also resulted in increased yields and efficiencies,” says Rex Hofer, director of HR Operations, Tyson Fresh Meats Inc., who has HR oversight of the Dakota City complex and four other Tyson beef and pork plants.
When the program began, few in the industry could define ergonomics (the science of designing the workplace to fit the worker to prevent injuries). Also, the relationship between industry and the UFCW was contentious at times.

“The program gave us something to work toward together as opposed to fighting each other,” says Dan Brooks, senior vice president of operations at Tyson Fresh Meats Inc. “It evolved our relationship. It was a tool in changing the way we approached and understood each other.”

“A program li ke this is not as beneficial for the union and the company as it is for the workers because it does reduce workplace injuries; the program has resulted in much success,” says Marvin Harrington, president of the UFCW Local 222, Dakota City, Neb. “I don’t think any [competitors] come close to Tyson’s program; some are trying, some would like to, but they’re not close.”

Tyson’s workforce has changed as the program evolved during the past 20 years. Today, it is not uncommon to see a 100 lb. worker – man or woman – doing a job on the production floor that could previously be done only by a 180 lb. man. The forces, lifting and rolling heavy products over have been removed from the equation thanks to Tyson’s ergonomics program.

“Over the years, we’ve done many things through this ergonomics program to make jobs less stressful or hazardous,” says Carmen Hacht, UFCW Local 222 Recorder. “We [Tyson and UFCW Local 222] work together regularly and we have more opportunities to make it better.”

The program has been so successful, it has been expanded to Tyson’s eight beef plants and six pork plants.

“The reason this ergonomics program works is it’s a team effort by everybody sitting in this room [Tyson management, hourly workers and Local 222 officials],” says Kim Dirks, Tyson’s Fresh Meats director/EHS operations. “Although we’re not involved with OSHA anymore on this program, we continue doing this program because it’s good for the folks who work here.”

Dan Tjaden, senior director of operations support with Tyson Fresh Meats, adds: “Given the proper tools
and equipment, making sure the carcass is in good condition, everybody working together and sharing ideas and brainstorming together makes a difference.”

Twenty-six year Tyson veteran Chris Rupp, complex manager, who has worked at the Dakota City complex for the past 10 years, says Tyson’s ergonomic program components includes: training hourly workers and supervisors on worker safety; conducting analyses of every job identified as hazardous to help reduce and eliminate stresses; implement hazard prevention and controls; and continue following up on measures to ensure expected results are achieved. He feels the most important ergonomics issue is workers knowing how to keep their knives sharp.

Both engineering and administrative controls help enhance worker safety under this program.

“Engineering control could be a mechanical assist,” Rupp explains. “In the absence of assists, we have administrative controls where a team member can step back for several minutes, tool a knife and do hand exercises. We also rotate team members to jobs with mechanical assists...and sometimes relocate them to an easier job.”

Ergonomics in action
The Dakota City complex handles carcass beef production, processing, hide processing and tanning. The beef processing plant operates two production shifts, five or six days a week. Acquiring cattle from within a 400-mile radius, the complex has the capacity to slaughter 4,800 cattle per day.

With a capacity of 7,000 cattle per day, additional beef carcasses are shipped in from the company’s slaughter plant in Denison, Iowa. Tyson Fresh Meats spent $1.5 billion in fiscal 2008 supplying its Dakota City plant with cattle.

Products processed at the plant include fresh, vacuum-packed boxed beef for wholesalers, retailers, hotels, restaurants and institutions. Bone, fat, trimmings and hides are recovered and used to make various food and non-food products. Tyson beef and allied products are marketed both domestically and internationally.

The complex employs 3,800 team members, Rupp says. Approximately 2,000 of them work on the recently renovated and expanded beef-processing floor, which totals 130,000 sq. ft. (including 80,000 sq. ft. of new space and 50,000 sq. feet of renovated space).

Encompassing nine lines, the processing operation includes trimming, packaging, boning tables and a break chain. The box make-up operation is located one floor above the production floor while all bone belts and vacuum packaging equipment are located one floor below.

“Our ergonomics program builds a team because you get everybody involved; it really is a joint effort,” Rupp says. “Jim Hilton [29-year company veteran who is an assistant hourly trainer (AHT), ergonomics monitor and a UFCW Local 222 member] has been instrumental in this program through his work, ranging from testing knives to helping find solutions on a number of production floor challenges.”

Committed to success
Tyson and union executives agree the company was committed to this program from the start. The program began under the leadership of the late Bob Peterson, former IBP chairman and CEO. Ron Goodrich, vice president of operations at the time, headed the program in its early years.

“The biggest challenge was getting everyone educated on what ergonomics was,” says Bob Collins, plant HR manager, long-time Tyson executive and a Tyson ergonomics pioneer, on launching the program.

“We had to hire consultants to train trainers on what a stressor was,” adds Denny Golden, training/ergonomics manager who has been with the company 29 years and oversees the Dakota City ergonomics program. “I have been managing the program since 1990.”

“We also needed to teach line supervisors about non-verbal communications ,” he adds. “People having a problem may be rubbing a hand or shrugging a shoulder. That continues to be an important every-day process our supervisors observe.”

Jim Lochner, company veteran, ergonomics champion and recently appointed chief operating officer of Tyson Foods, says Tyson has spent millions of dollars in developing ergonomically-designed equipment and process improvements, as well as on training over the past 20 years.

“However, the real key to the program’s success has been the workers who serve as safety and ergonomics monitors,” he adds. “The input we’ve received from hourly production workers and the participation of our plant and corporate management teams have been invaluable.”

Tyson takes much pride in this program, says Tom Dunlop, HR manager of the Dakota City complex. “We have a joint committee at the plant comprised of Tyson management and our hourly workforce – called ergonomic monitors. We have monthly and weekly meetings and work jointly with Local 222 to make this a better workplace for the worker.”

Room for improvement
When Tyson kicked-off this program, its Dakota City complex was an older facility in need of ergonomic changes, Golden says. “We looked every morning at the proper stand height for our line people,” he adds. “The tables they worked on were positioned low on the floor. So you’d try to get someone 6 ft. 4 inches as close to the floor drain as you could, since the floors sloped down to the drains. When we got someone 5 ft. tall, we had to work on the stand to get them at the right height. We spent millions of dollars since then making adjustable stands.”

Today, when glancing down a line, all workers’ heads, regardless of their height,– are at an even height.

The program begins with orientation training for new production workers, which can be done in almost any language; continuing ergonomics training for veteran production workers; involving and training hourly workers as ‘ergonomic monitors’; worksite analysis and redesigning work stations and equipment; and a medical management program focused on early detection and treatment of workplace injuries and illnesses.

“Our AHTs check with trainees every day to make sure they are not having problems,” Hilton says. “If they have knife or steeling problems, we work with them to correct it.”

Ergonomics was a key factor when Tyson redesigned its multi-million dollar Dakota City beef processing floor, which became operational early in 2006. Many engineering projects were designed to modify work stations and equipment to reduce physical stressors on the job including:

• Knife handles were redesigned internally from hardwood handles to a variety of cushion-grip handles;
• Height-adjustable work stations were installed;
• Heavier traditional saws/power tools were replaced by lighter-weight equipment;
• Hydraulic/mechanical assists, such as chuck roll assists and automated knuckle pullers, were installed to help lift or separate product;
• Adjustable overhead chains and conveyors can now be lowered or raised to prevent workers from reaching over shoulder height;
• Product diverters were installed on conveyor lines to bring product closer to workers;
• Ramps instead of steps were installed at appropriate locations;
• The break chain was designed in a U-shaped pattern to eliminate excessive walking from one end of the chain to the other;
• Grating was installed over stands so pieces of line debris can fall below the grating to prevent slipping;
• Comfortable/level floor surfaces were installed; and
• Improved overhead lighting was installed.

Temperature is also critical for employee comfort. The processing floor is kept at 45° F by computerized controls. Although pressure sensors automatically accelerate or decelerate the ventilation, there are no drafts on the floor.

Tyson also reduced vibrations on automated trimming knives and other tools, modified personal protective equipment to make it fit better and added wrist straps to trimming knives so workers can release them and relax their hands. A catwalk over the production floor and a windowed meeting room above and to the side of the production floor helps supervisors visually keep a handle on ergonomic and other plant-floor issues.

“Many ergonomic changes were quick fixes that were done in a few days,” Golden says. “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.”

Feedback is important
After making an ergonomic change, team members fill out feedback forms so management can determine the effectiveness of such changes, Collins says.

Should an employee get injured, he or she is in good hands. The complex contains South and North Health Services areas that care for any injured or ill team member. A therapy room is also located at the complex. Roger Svec, an independent contractor/physical therapist who has been at the complex for 15 years, explains how this system works: the front-line supervisor identifies the problem, the affected person is sent to the nurse’s office, the nurses triage the problem and if it requires further medical attention, the employee is sent to an outside physician. Svec only sees people on a physician referral and some of these workers may be placed on a restricted-duty program until they recover.

Tyson’s ergonomic program encourages team members to speak up about potential problems or concerns. “That’s a big benefit,” Rupp says. “We know early on when the stand height isn’t right, a slide doesn’t slide or a roller doesn’t roll.”

“Once while walking in the chuckroll area, a team member said the brake wasn’t working [on an assist],” Hilton says. “We got maintenance there right away to fix it before someone got hurt.”

Looking ahead
Inherently, processing beef will remain ergonomically challenging because many breeds of cattle come to Tyson’s plants at different rates, heights and sizes. But Tyson can deal with these variances thanks to ergonomic program advancements achieved thus far. And more improvements are on the way.

For example, a Temple Grandindesigned restrainer for knocking cattle is currently being built. “We still knock cattle here in knocking boxes and we’re going to get away from that in about seven months,” Rupp says. “The restrainer will make it an easier, less risky job for knockers and shacklers.”

Brooks, who visits all Tyson beef and pork plants regularly, says: “There is so much pride when you ask about recent successes. I’ll get a list of them everywhere I go. That pride feeds on itself.”

“This program is all about continuous improvement,” Rupp adds, “which we embrace for all of our programs. We’ll continue getting better with our ergonomics program. It’s the right thing to do and it will drive how we progress at Dakota City.”