Smithfield 1
Phillip Shafer and Keri Turner are two believers in Smithfield's worker safety initiatives. 

John Tignor, director of compliance and regulatory affairs at Smithfield Foods Inc., grew up around saws. His father, a meteorologist by trade, was passionate about woodworking and built everything from furniture to delicate and ornate clocks. The family’s garage housed the woodshop where Tignor’s father lived out his woodworking avocation.

“His woodshop consisted of just about anything that you could imagine – planers, radial arm saws, table saws, band saws, routers and all kinds of stuff,” Tignor says.

It was in that woodshop that Tignor and his siblings worked alongside their father as children, and it was that place where their father suffered an injury none of them will forget. Tignor remembers his father coming in from the woodshop with a blood soaked white towel wrapped around his hand, announcing that he had cut part of his thumb off and would need to go to the hospital.

The same band saw still sits in his father’s woodshop today, and Tignor often reflects on the accident and how it shaped his career path and current role at Smithfield.

“I don’t know if it was a conscious decision, but my dad’s accident has always been in the back of my mind throughout my career,” Tignor says. “It’s just one of those things that as I’ve grown up now in the meat industry, we have a lot of saws, different types of saws, and every time I look at those band saws, I can’t help but, in the back of my mind, think about Dad and the accident.”

BladeStop saws were specifically designed for the meat industry to reduce injuries. 

Strides in safety

Tignor started in the meat industry on the production line almost 30 years ago. The focus on worker health and safety has changed dramatically over that time, especially in terms of employee training. Tignor’s description of his first experience borders on comical. At his first job in production, his supervisor said, “Watch that guy, and do what he does.”

The mindset of safety today has evolved from “injury and accidents are a cost of doing business,” to “we have to do more to take care of our people,” Tignor says. “People have become a higher priority within the industry and especially with Smithfield. Training has evolved. We’ve gone from ‘watch that guy and do what he does’ to the hours and hours we spend, not only in classroom training, but also hands-on, on-the-job training with our employees. That’s definitely one of the things that have gotten better over the years within our industry.”

Different plants and departments now openly communicate more than they did in the past, as well, another evolution that has taken worker safety and well-being to a higher level. Even those in the same organization competed to be the best. Today, companies understand that safety is not proprietary and that communication helps everyone do and be better. This even applies to outside competitors.

“We have a committee with the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) that’s made up of senior safety and health professionals from different organizations, and the whole idea behind it is that we want to know how safety is going,” Tignor says. “What are the things that are challenging you over at your company? Here are the things that we face and we have challenges with. We talk those types of things through amongst many of our competitors and the meat industry representatives. Back in the day, you wouldn’t have talked to any of those folks and shared your information and your ideas. Those types of things (not sharing) are gone today.”

Protecting People

With companies today focusing more on safety, health and injury prevention than was common in the past, equipment and technology manufacturers have stepped up their games as well. And top executives at companies like Smithfield have signed off on the capital investments necessary to protect their people.

Through the years, the meat industry has worked to reduce the number and severity of saw-related injuries. Tignor says about 75 percent of Smithfield’s saws are belt fed, so a worker’s hands stay clear of the blade, but there are still some, band saws especially, that require workers to feed meat into a moving blade. “That’s where BladeStop comes in,” Tignor says.

BladeStop technology detects when the blade comes in contact with a body part. In approximately one-tenth of a second after detection of contact, the saw will shut down.

“With the BladeStop technology, you barely get a scratch on a finger, where prior to the BladeStop, the best we could do was maybe shut a saw down before it got through two or three fingers,” Tignor says. “BladeStop has really helped with that. So, it’s not something that goes in place of every saw, but every saw where we have to have somebody’s hands close to the product, close to a blade to manipulate the product for a precision cut, that’s where BladeStop technology comes in.”

The Smithfield north plant in Smithfield, Virginia, installed its first BladeStop band saw last year and Smithfield has since put in capital appropriation requests to purchase and install the technology at other locations. “Quite frankly, it’s a very costly process,” Tignor says. Traditional band saws used in processing plants could cost as much as $20,000. “A BladeStop is about four to five times that, about $85,000 per unit for us to purchase and install. And we have to tweak it at every location for every individual saw. So it’s a big undertaking, but it’s one that our senior leadership here at Smithfield has decided is the right thing to do.”

While the equipment is cost prohibitive for many processing companies, Smithfield is committed to upgrading in the name of safety. “Eventually we’ll have BladeStop technology in most of the locations where we have somebody’s hand close to that blade,” Tignor says.

Tignor credits Senior Corporate Director of Health and Safety at Smithfield Foods, Gary Walters, and his team at the north facility in Smithfield with bringing BladeStop to the company. Once Walters and his team discovered a safer alternative, they made contact with the company and began the procedure of installation and fine tuning.

Production floor employees at Smithfield Foods' plants work in environments with state-of-the-art safety equipment. 

Finding the way

John Tignor’s path in the industry from production on the line to where he is today has been circuitous, yet defined and focused. His initiation into the health and safety industry came from working outside the plant as a fireman and paramedic.

“We had some pretty serious injuries back in those days and it was one of those things that after seeing some of my co-workers and some of my friends seriously injured, and one guy that I went to school with killed, I just decided that I had to do something different,” he says. “The opportunity came up for a supervising paramedic position in our industrial health services clinic. I decided to leave production and the work I was doing there and go into the taking care of people side of the business.”

During his tenure as the supervising paramedic, Tignor treated a number of serious injuries that occurred on the processing floor and even responded to a fatality. At that point, he committed to doing more than just taking care of people after they were injured and focus instead on prevention.

“A position opened up in our safety office at the facility and I applied and got hired,” Tignor says. “I’ve been doing health and safety ever since. It is my passion.”

Tignor’s been given the opportunity to go back to the production side of the business, but he’s never considered it. Since he’s been on the safety side, he’s known it is the area he belongs in and often reflects back to his childhood, before safety in the meat packing industry was such an integral part of his character. He says he’s not sure whether it was a conscious decision to pursue a career in worker safety, but it’s apparent that his childhood experience played a role.

“I think now I see those saws, and in the back of my mind, I’ve always got that situation with my dad and his thumb,” he says. “Are there things in place? Things that we can put in place? Had they been in place back in those days, maybe Dad would not have a disfigured thumb today.”