The recently released OSHA report about the decline in injury rate in the meat industry was refreshing news to the ears and spirit. Continuous improvement in meat industry safety has led to a declining recordable injury rate, which was the lowest ever in 2010.

Don’t, however, expect plants to rest on their laurels. Most safety programs have the goal of achieving an injury-free workplace, and by stretching for this lofty target, they are finding ways to drive the number of injuries down. Process-safety management, checklists of every stripe, annual training, recertification and trending analysis have all made contributions to the improved rate. But for my dime, the biggest gains have come from employee engagement around workplace safety.

Safety is a team sport and the plants must have good employee involvement around it. Increasingly, plants are reaping the benefits of safety programs and processes that are generated up from the folks on the plant floor, rather than handed down from management. “Power to the People” isn’t just a great song by the late John Lennon, but it is increasingly the way plants are finding success to prevent people from getting hurt.

The same principle holds true on a smaller scale in the animal handling areas of the plant. Accidents that involve a 1,200-lb. steer or a 2,500-lb. bull can be devastating or even fatal. And while most mechanical equipment is predictable in its operation, there is a degree of unpredictability with live animals that calls for a high level of vigilance when handling.

At my plant in Milwaukee in 2006, we had a couple of near-miss encounters between cattle and handlers. We were also hearing reports of animal contact injuries in other plants, including an inexperienced handler getting trampled in the yards at one facility. Nick Naas was the Safety Manager at Cargill's Milwaukee plant, and figured it was time to effect a change in the animal handling area.

Nick didn't know a lot about animal handling, but he did have a penchant for facilitating teams to solve problems. He gathered all the herdsmen together and mapped out each step of the process, from unloading the truck to stunning and shackling at the restrainer. The team then identified the safety risks at each step, and came up with a plant to minimize the risk, including the identification of several “no escape” zones where a handler should never be positioned. The team’s findings were codified into safety procedures for the animal handling area, and incorporated into the annual training cycle, including an annual review to reevaluate risks. The effort was so successful that the handling crew in the barn had the best safety record in the plant the following year — zero injuries! This was not the result of rocket science, rather good focus, communication and team work.

Has there been an uptick in injuries with large animals in meat plants? Sometimes it seems that as the industry has focused on humane handling, human injuries have increased. One safety professional points out that while OSHA statistics don’t support that assumption, the focus on humane handling has introduced some changed circumstances that must be accounted for.

Eric Reynolds is the Safety/Ergonomics manager at the Cargill Regional Beef facility in Wyalusing, Pa., the first large VPP Site in our industry. He has been a member of the American Meat Institute’s Worker Safety Committee for over two decades, including a stint as committee chair. Noting the changes in the safety challenges associated with animal handling in recent years, he commented: “The focus on reducing prod usage has brought employees into more intimate contact with cattle, which potentially increased the risk of injury.”

Was it the case of improved animal welfare at the cost of employee safety? Not at all, explains Reynolds. “It was a matter of adapting to the changes, and understanding the basics. Cattle, especially dairy cattle and bulls, require patience to handle when moving through the barn and serpentine. It was good training, lots of feedback and reminding people to be patient and aware of their surroundings that helped adjust to the reduction of prod usage.

Understanding the basics
The basics haven't changed much over the years. Here are some basic cattle handling safety guidelines from the University of Missouri published in 1931. They still apply today.

1) Most animals will respond to routines; be calm and deliberate;
2) Avoid quick movements and loud noises;
3) Be patient; never prod an animal when it has nowhere to go;
4) Respect livestock – don't fear it;
5) Move slowly and deliberately around animal; gently touch animals rather than shoving or bumping them; and
6) Always have an escape route when working with animals in close quarters.

Humane handling and human safety are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the elements that lead to success with one reinforce success with the other.

Be patient and calm. Think about your movements. Work as a team. And most of all, handle with care.