Executives at Tyson Foods Inc.'s Fresh Meats business in Dakota Dunes, S.D., and the United Food and Commercial Workers think employee health and safety are as vital to the industry as its focus on food safety — and should be similarly non-competitive.
Furthermore, after 30 years of relationship-building on a health and safety platform, the two entities are prepared to step out in front of the industry and, they hope, lead the way to safer, more comfortable working conditions for everybody.
To that end, Tyson and the UFCW today are announcing their plans to leverage the program they began building in 1988, when Tyson Fresh Meats still was IBP, at the company’s poultry plants.
“This has been so successful on the red meat side. If it’s half as successful for the poultry plants, it will be life-changing for everybody in those plants,” said Mark Lauritsen, director of the UFCW’s Food Processing, Packing and Manufacturing Division.
Tyson already has turned its focus on workplace safety in its poultry facilities, said spokesman Gary Mickelson, and is counting on the expanded collaboration with the UFCW to reinforce and accelerate its efforts. The We Care safety communications program is one example. Tyson’s poultry plants also have added more than 260 trainers and 30 training coordinators to support frontline workers.
Lauritsen and Steve Stouffer, president of Tyson Fresh Meats, talked with Meatingplace earlier this week about how they developed their program and how they think it could lead not just Tyson, but all meat processors into a more productive future.
Meatingplace: Companies celebrate a lot of anniversaries; why is this one so important?
Lauritsen: You have to go back 30 years where we started with a groundbreaking ergonomic program, and look what it has grown into, the industry-leading health and safety program. We have something that’s lasted for 30 years and developed … a new [way] of looking at things in an industry that’s constantly beaten up for having an unsafe workspace.
Stouffer: Quite frankly, the true difference in this evolution has been the fact that we have been, as an organization, willing to make changes. We talk a lot about process in control: We were good as a group at making workarounds when something didn’t work right. We called it the baling-wire-and-duct tape model.
When you look at the cause and effect [of safety violations and injuries] it’s often because employees are doing something out of the norm of what they’re accustomed to doing. Which is what a ‘workaround’ is, so we’ve stopped doing them.
The fact that we [company and union] have worked together to start moving the mindset in this direction is unprecedented.
Meatingplace: What specifically are some things that you have changed in the plant?
Stouffer: One of the first things we did is we made it mandatory that no supervisor could work [on the line]. [Common practice is,] if a number of people call in sick the supervisor would jump in the line. Then they’re not supervising. One of the first big policy changes we made was mandating that managers could not work [on the line]. Second big thing is, we looked at span of control and instead of trying to manage 60 to 100 people — we didn’t define a specific number, but we added an appropriate number of managers on the floor to start having better management supervision process and create an opportunity for one-to-one communications.
The last one, which is a big one, is slowing down the process. We made a conscious decision that … [under] certain conditions we will slow or stop the process before we speed it back up, in order to maintain control. We talk about line speeds and people get upset, but frankly line speeds are irrelevant if you have the equipment and people in place.
Meatingplace: You have said the Tyson/UFCW program around worker health and safety has picked up speed in the last couple of years. Why is that?
Stouffer: As an organization, one of the biggest challenges we put upon ourselves is [achieving] sustainability and how to maintain it in our business. Often when you talk about sustainability, people talk about livestock and water reclamation, but there’s another aspect. How do we make this [company] a more sustainable enterprise overall?
We want to be the preferred employer in the areas where we have operations. A cold room or hot packinghouse isn’t what most people aspire to, but how can we treat those employees with respect and make their work as comfortable as possible?
I walk through our plants and one of the things I asked my people was, ‘Do these folks need to stand all day to do these jobs?’ Start with the fundamental creature comforts and build it from there.
Meatingplace: So your line employees can work sitting down?
Stouffer: Not all of the jobs, but we’ve added the ability for people to sit down at times if they can.
Lauritsen: I’ve been around the industry a long time, what Steve said is a first for me. When you use the word ‘sustainability’ there has to be a certain amount of applause to go to Tyson for taking labor and [realizing it is] an important part of the issue of sustainability. At the rate we are going in this industry, if we don’t make these changes in health, safety and other working conditions, this is not a sustainable industry.
If labor really is part of your sustainability project, as in this program with the union … we’ll survive on the labor front.
Stouffer: We will see this change the system over time. Some of it stems from conversations we’ve had with consumers and customers. They want to know more about where their food is coming from. We’re being more transparent and being the change agent, we’re willing to go to the next level. We’ve seen massive reductions in illnesses and injuries. People understand that we don’t have to accept that being in a packinghouse is necessarily a danger.
Meatingplace: Is this a step toward making worker health and safety a non-competitive issue in the meat industry?
Lauritsen: From my point of view, it’s an easy answer. I would prefer it to be ‘yes’.
I never would have thought in 1986 that we’d have this conversation in these plants because that wasn’t the type of employer that IBP was back then.
When Tyson took the bold step to empower a line worker to say, ‘There’s something not right with my job, I’m going to stop the line,’ that’s a step that never would have happened. But when [employees] were empowered to do this, knowing that there would be no retribution for stopping the line, then they had union leaders who said to their members, ‘They’re trusting me, I’m not going to violate that trust.’ So all parts of the company are respecting and following through on the process.
It takes me back to 30 years ago when this union and company were at each others’ throats and the leaders then said, ‘This isn’t a workable situation.’ Thirty years later I think everybody’s on track to change this industry for the better.
Stouffer: Readers may be asking, ‘In our organization, can we afford to do this?’ Quite frankly, my point is we can’t afford not to do it. When we get to where we want to be on this culture shift, I think we will find out that our metrics are too low and our expectations are underestimated.
People want to do this, they just need to be given permission to do it.