This photo provided by Tyson shows an ergonomics improvement at the Storm Lake, Iowa, pork plant, the use of a bone-in loin stuffer.

Tyson, UFCW Mark 20 Years of Ergonomics Cooperation

The program began in 1989 at the Dakota City, Neb., beef complex, where the recordable injury and illness rate is now 67 percent below the 1991 rate and injuries and illnesses requiring the involvement of a physician are 73 percent below 1991 levels.

A real ergonomics success story is being celebrated today by Tyson Foods Inc. and the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which are respectlvely the world’s largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef, and pork and the largest U.S. union representing meatpacking and food processing workers. The celebration marks the 20th year of a comprehensive ergonomics program begun by Tyson Fresh Meats (formerly known as IBP) and the UFCW after a landmark OSHA citation and settlement in November 1988.

The program got underway in early 1989 at the Dakota City, Neb., beef complex with production workers represented by UFCW Local 222 actively involved. This pilot program was successful and soon expanded to all of the company’s beef and pork plants, the two parties said today. Key elements of the program include ongoing ergonomics training for production workers; hourly workers serving as ergonomic monitors; work site analysis; redesign of workstations and equipment; and a medical management program focused on early detection and treatment of workplace injuries and illnesses. The two organizations say the program has helped the Dakota City plant achieve an OSHA recordable injury and illness rate 67 percent lower than its 1991 rate and a current rate of injuries and illnesses requiring the involvement of a physician that is 73 percent below 1991 levels.

"Over the past 20 years, our company has devoted millions of dollars in ergonomically designed equipment and process improvements, as well as training, which we believe have helped prevent workplace injuries and illnesses," said Jim Lochner, chief operating officer of Tyson Foods. "However, the real key to the success of this program has been the workers who serve as safety and ergonomics monitors. The input we've received from hourly production workers and the participation of our plant and corporate management teams have been invaluable."

"What this program shows is that when workers have input on working conditions, when they are part of the decision-making process, you come up with a better, safer environment -- and that's good for everybody," said UFCW Meatpacking, Manufacturing, and Food Processing Division Director Mark Lauritsen. "It works because everyone is involved, from Tyson management to UFCW leaders, ergo monitors, and production workers."

"The union and Tyson have worked together to make this ergonomics program what it is today. I think we're way ahead of the industry with our program," said Marvin Harrington, president of UFCW Local 222. "We're proud the program is part of our UFCW contract with Tyson. We train UFCW members on how to identify hazards and recommend fixes. Having both Tyson management and UFCW members engaged on detecting hazards makes for an efficient process."

Tyson built a new beef processing floor at Dakota City that began operation in 2006. It includes adjustable workstations and a production flow designed with workers' safety and health in mind. Many ergonomic improvements at the facility were much less expensive. "Many of them have been what we call 'quick fixes,' which are projects that can be done in a matter of a few days," said Dennis Golden, training manager/ergonomics liaison at the Dakota City plant. He has been involved in the ergonomics program since its inception. "For example, 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 workstation more comfortable for team members."

Initially established for only three years, the program has continued for 17 more years and will go forward simply because it works, said Lochner and Lauritsen. “What sets it apart from every other program in the industry is, this program has support from top to bottom . . . at every level," Lauritsen said. "Everybody is involved. Not only do they [Tyson management] listen; they take action on these things [input from workers]. If I could, this is a program I would want to put in every plant in the industry. . . The track record of this program speaks for itself. Our union, along with Tyson, we work at this program every day.”

Improving employee retention was a goal of the program from its origins at a time when the meatpacking industry had a problem with high turnover, Lochner said. Cumulative trauma disorders were not well understood in the industry then, he said; Jackie Nowell, UFCW’s director of occupational safety and health, said surgeries for ergonomic ailments were more common for meatpacking workers then than now because workers’ injuries were not being diagnosed as early as they are now. The key thing, Lochner said, was Tyson’s understanding that it needed to listen to workers and get them off the line and make changes if they were hurting.

Some other employers have tried similar programs, Lauritsen said. ”What’s different with this one, it was successful,” he said. “Some, the three years would come and go, it wouldn’t be enforced. Others, they start, but there are management or local union changes, and the importance of the program drops off.”

“Any time you involve management and workers in a common goal, you’ll get better rentention,” Lochner said. He estimated Tyson’s plants with this program in place have cut their turnover by more than half from 20 years ago. “I know our plants have dramatically improved in turnover over this period,” he said, adding that training, willingness to make changes, and major spending by Tyson (on training, engineering, equipment and layout) were critical. “Our biggest asset is our people. We cannot convert cattle to beef and pigs to pork without utilizing people. We have to really adapt the workplace to the people and not the people to the workplace. And that’s a big change,” he said.

Tyson Fresh Meats, part of Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods Inc., operates eight beef plants and six pork plants in the United States.

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