Back in 1988, after years of bitter disagreements and strikes, the relationship between IBP inc., which would eventually become a component of Tyson Foods, and the union representing most of IBP’s organized employees, the United Food and Commercial Workers, was anything but collegial. Employee turnover at IBP beef and pork plants was extremely high – by some estimates, more than 100 percent per year. Moreover, cumulative trauma disorders, CTDs, were on the rise among IBP’s workers who cut beef and pork day in and day out, adding to employee complaints and turnover. That year, as an element of a hard-fought labor agreement at IBP’s Dakota City, Neb., headquarters beef plant, the two sides agreed to implement an experimental program to improve employee working conditions with ergonomic improvements at work stations.

The program, which was implemented in 1989, was scheduled to terminate in three years, but its success encouraged both IBP and UFCW to let it continue. This year, the union and Tyson, now IBP’s parent corporation, jointly celebrated the 20th anniversary of the ergonomics program, which has been extended to all of Tyson’s beef and pork operations.

"Ergonomics had not been extensively used in the industry until the Tyson/UFCW agreement in 1988," new Tyson COO Jim Lochner, who was with IBP 20 years ago, commented in a teleconference with reporters. "But now we’re in our 20th year and our plans are to go into the future."

"The reason the program wasn’t abandoned was because it was successful," added Mark Lauritsen, the union’s director for food processing and packing. "A common goal sat out there: make the workplace safer. This program has also worked because it has involvement in it from top to bottom at every level."

"This is a real program," added Jackie Nowell, UFCW’s director for occupational health. "It’s not just on a piece of paper and it wasn’t just turned over to some committee."

Key elements of the program include ongoing ergonomics training for production workers; 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. According to a Tyson press release, the OSHA recordable injury and illness rate at the Dakota City plant is currently running 67 percent below the rate recorded in 1991, and the current rate of injuries and illnesses at Dakota City requiring the involvement of a physician is 73 percent below 1991 levels.

Lochner emphasized that "this wasn’t a free program by any means." He said that in addition to work stations, some machinery and even plant floor plants were completely revised to accommodate employee suggestions for ergonomic improvements.

"Tyson management listens when workers say they have a problem with a work station and they do something about it," added Lauritsen during the teleconference. "Line workers have extra input on their jobs. If I could, I’d put this program in every plant in the industry." He noted that an extra benefit from the cooperative partnership is that "it has led to a better dialog and better relationship" for Tyson and UFCW across the past 20 years. "We have things in common and we talk to each other about them. I don’t think you can put a price tag on that."

"We needed to change our philosophy," Lochner admitted in describing the program’s origins. "We needed to get management to understand that hourly wage workers were valuable members of the team." When fully implemented, the program also included input from the federal government’s OSHA agency.

Both Lochner and Lauritsen told reporters that other companies and union locals have expressed interest in adapting the Tyson/UFCW program to other operations, but so far the program’s spread has been limited. "Some of them will look back and say, ‘We’ve got to do our own thing,’" said Lauritsen. "But what’s missing in some companies is the willingness to make changes that are necessary. Not everyone has been willing, but I think we’re starting to see some improvement."

Responding to a question about whether Tyson is considering installing the ergonomic partnership program in its poultry plants, Lochner said there’s been no involvement yet from the Teamsters union, which represents some Tyson poultry employees. "The chicken industry is different, too. Its history is different, and on the processing line you’re not using the same kind of hand force that you do with beef or pork," he added.