Just as production practices have been modified to deliver greater food safety, worker safety concerns are prompting food manufacturers to reexamine standard operating procedures.
Hormel, Tyson Foods, ConAgra-they're not just some of the food industry's biggest companies, they were among last year's most heavily fined companies for worker safety violations by the US Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Tyson racked up the fourth highest level of cumulative OSHA fines for a single incident in fiscal 2004. The $436,000 OSHA assessment stemmed from the October 2003 asphyxiation of a worker who inhaled hydrogen sulfide during repair work at Tyson's Texarkana, AR, rendering facility. Five willful and 12 serious citations were issued in the worker's death during repair work. More recently, a worker at Tyson's Temperanceville, VA, processing plant slipped on a waste-tank catwalk October 2 and fell to his death in the grinders below. Tyson is contesting OSHA penalties in both incidents.
In fact, Tyson touts its worker safety record, pointing out "more than 40 of our plants have passed the milestone of working more than a million man-hours without a lost-time according." Critics note Tyson requires injured workers to report to the plant, where they are assigned tasks less physically demanding than their normal duties. "We have a light-duty program that allows workers, with their doctor's permission, to temporarily shift to jobs that conform to medical restrictions," responds Tyson Spokesman Gary Mickelson. Workers continue to be paid while they heal, he adds.
Taken as a whole, the food industry's track record in worker safety lags American manufacturing. According to the National Safety Council's Chief Statistician Alan Hoskin, food and beverage processors average 8.6 reportable injuries per 100 workers, compared to 6.8 per 100 for all manufacturers. Reportable injuries in construction also are 6.8; for agricultural workers, the injury rate is 6.2, and miners are at 3.3.
"There are a few bright spots, such as dog and cat food manufacturing and cereal manufacturing," says Hoskin, and injury rates are declining. In 1998, the food industry was at 13.6 reportables per 100. Awareness of worker safety as a component of manufacturing efficiency is helping drive improvements. "Injury reduction drives out cost and improves productivity," points out Hoskin. "It affects the competitiveness of the business and its ability to meet price and quality expectations."
"It's an attention-to-detail matter: it's possible to be a well-run organization and not be safe, but I've never seen one," seconds Charlie Cannon, senior vice president and group manager of FMC FoodTech in Chicago. "There is a business imperative to having a good safety record," and it goes well beyond controlling workers compensation costs. Sloppy safety practices are symptoms of carelessness in quality practices, product safeguards and other production areas. Disciplined procedures and worker buy-in to safe operating procedures usually is reflected in the quality of finished goods.
Economics are a driver in health and safety and environment (HSE) programs, and escalating costs for health care and workers compensation insurance help make the case for larger investments in safety initiatives. "It's important when you have an incident that you manage it," notes Cannon, and moving injured workers into nonproduction jobs while they recuperate is a legitimate response to abuses that drive up comp system costs. But management mandates alone won't do the job. "When you can get all the employees to participate, that's when you have a breakthrough," says Cannon.
Data drives change, and in recent years FMC FoodTech instituted an audit program to objectively collect and evaluate safety information. As injury rates trended down, the breadth of data has been expanded to include "near misses" to isolate problem areas before worker safety is compromised. That kind of continuous improvement requires the eyes and ears of every worker in the plant.
Chris Gordon, EHS manager at Ocean Spray Cranberries' Tomah, WI, facility, embraces that approach. Gordon oversees two receiving stations and one processing plant in central Wisconsin, the heart of America's cranberry production. He was recognized with a Safety Professional of the Year (SPOT) award recently by Keller Online, an Internet-based safety management service from J.J. Keller & Associates Inc.
According to J.J. Keller's Mark DeCoster, Gordon was recognized because injury reductions were realized in three dissimilar work environments under his control (a fourth site, a former Northland Cranberries processing facility, soon will be added to Gordon's duties). Seasonal workers assemble 1,300-lb. wooden bins of cranberries at the receiving stations. "We don't bring them in at the last minute and expect them to go full speed," says Gordon. "Safety training is an investment we think pays.
"Changing people's habits is tough, and there's always some pushback, but if we're pressed to change, we start to perform work differently and it becomes part of the procedure," he adds. Between 2003 and 2004, the three facilities under his jurisdiction had zero reportable injuries, despite a program that encourages workers to report even minor injuries. "If a guy goes to a chiropractor, that's a reportable incident," he says.
From 2001 to 2003, workers-comp costs plunged 30 percent at Gordon's locations, even as premium costs nationwide were trending up. According to the National Council on Compensation Insurance, premium costs for employers insured by private carriers increased 55 percent in the five-year period ending in 2004.
With the workforce aging, employers must either adapt their facilities to accommodate those older workers or face even higher premiums, suggests Brenda Flaherty, an underwriter with PMA Insurance Group in Blue Bell, PA. A seasoned workforce reduces the likelihood of injuries, but the injuries are more severe: the average injury claim for workers 60 and older is $3,738, compared to $1,496 for workers in their 20s. "As they age, back problems from a lifetime of improper lifting and hearing loss from a lack of ear protection occur," says Flaherty. Demographic realities will force manufacturers to accommodate older workers' reduced mobility and strength loss. The number of American workers in the 35 to 45 age bracket is only half the number of 45 to 55 year old workers, Keller's DeCoster points out.
Degree of automation impacts worker risk. "You can engineer risk out of the equation with automation, and investments in automation in the last decade have helped make plants safer," Flaherty says. However, unless management continues to emphasize the importance of proper procedures in communications with line supervisors, workers will regard safety rules as a nuisance and distraction. "As you increase production, there is greater risk if programs aren't maintained and employees stop focusing on safety," she says. "For companies looking to grow, little issues like safety become big ones," with increased turnover and higher insurance costs impacting operations.
Lock-out, tag-out reconsidered
Technology has the potential to reduce danger in manufacturing environments, though an array of regulations and standards first must be brought into alignment. "The safety automation landscape is following general automation trends-but three times faster," suggests Jeff Gellendin, product marketing manager for safety PLCs at Rockwell Automation, Milwaukee. Complexity is increased because of the differences between the US and Europe in the degree of plant automation and their approaches to worker protection.
In the EU, machines must be certified as safe before they can be placed into production, a requirement that encourages formalized design procedures to assess degrees of risk and incorporate appropriate safeguards. "In the US, the only requirement is to provide a safe environment for employees," Gellendin says. If a machine harms a person, "the only recourse is to sue."
Reduced liability motivates both US OEMs and manufacturers to incorporate functional safety in equipment design. E-stops, light curtains and interlock systems dependent on electrical and electronic components are at the heart of safety systems in newer machines. Performance standards are specified in IEC 61508, the international standard that includes criteria for four levels of safety. The potential to raise safety levels by meeting the higher standards is acknowledged in ANSI Z244.1, the American National Standards Institute's revised lockout/tagout (LO/TO) standard that recognizes engineered safeguards as an alternative method to LO/TO to control hazardous energy.
While OSHA generally incorporates ANSI standards by reference, the revised Z244.1 remains in limbo. In a letter to the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), Richard E. Fairfax, head of OSHA's enforcement program, wrote, "The ANSI standard appears to sanction practices that may provide less employee protection than that provided by compliance with the relevant OSHA provisions." Fairfax went on to note, "the ANSI standard permits the use of tagout programs if they provide ‘effective' employee protection, while the OSHA LO/TO standard allows the use of a tagout program where the employer demonstrates it provides...a level of safety equivalent to that obtained by using a lockout program." LO/TO violations consistently rank among the top four safety citations issued by OSHA, with 4,304 citations in the most recent 12-month period.
Pragmatic considerations make safety directors uncomfortable about engineered alternatives to LO/TO. "There are interlocks and e-stops on a lot of machines, but interlocks and e-stops fail," says Ocean Spray's Gordon. "Even with redundancies, we lock out because we don't want to develop bad habits." Workers receive a mixed message when LO/TO applies to older equipment but not to state-of-the-art machinery.
Health care product manufacturers such as Johnson & Johnson are addressing that concern by retrofitting older machines to meet new safety standards. Worker safety is only part of the motivation: mandates to document the state of every component of output also are behind better drives and controls. "The driver is the lawyer," suggests John Wenzler, a food & beverage account executive with Bosch Rexroth Corp. in Hoffman Estates, IL. "People are protecting themselves if someone loses a finger."
Rexroth's most advanced drives integrate safety functions for safe standstill and safe motion machine states with technology certified to meet the European standard EN 954-1. Like IEC 61508, EN 954-1 specifies four levels of safety. Rexroth meets category three specifications, which allows the daisy-chaining of e-stops to save wiring costs while sacrificing some safety redundancy. "Category four is difficult to achieve today because each component has to monitor its own integrity," Wenzler explains. "If you daisy chain all these functions together, you don't know where a failure may have occurred."
Since the birth of machine safety design, operators and maintenance workers have used their ingenuity to defeat systems to meet operating goals. New technology, like Rexroth's drives, attempts to reconcile safety objectives with shop floor realities. OEMs can demand clients leave safety guards in place and follow recommended sanitation protocols, but there is little a vendor or even an employer can do to prevent operators from circumventing safeguards to clear a machine jam. New sensors, controls and actuators address reality with systems that put a machine in a safe speed or safe torque mode without cutting power. Rexroth offers a safety switch that controls machine state in lieu of LO/TO in those situations. The operator holds the switch during the procedure and depresses the switch halfway. Studies suggest men will clench their hands when panicked, while women will release what they are holding. In either event, the switch cuts power, keeping the operator safe.
Eliminating the need to shutdown and ramp back up during minor repairs has obvious productivity advantages. Pepperl+Fuchs, the Twinsburg, OH, division of a German controls supplier, attained category four status for its actuator-sensor interface, a rating that allows only one point of failure. The likelihood of system failure is one incident in a billion. Despite high reliability, it is no substitute for LO/TO, according to Helge Horni, Pepperl+Fuchs' intelligent systems manager. The technology's benefit is in quickly pinpointing trouble spots and extending workplace protection to conveyors and other equipment lacking any safeguards, Horni suggests. Pepperl+Fuchs achieved category four status for its output signal switching devices: a safety monitor shuts down equipment unless safety nodes continually tell it not to shut down. A severed wire or data-transmission hiccup interrupts the "no" message and results in shutdown. "This is a different approach to redundancy, which traditionally has involved doubling up and brute force," he says.
Machines aren't the only threat to employee well-being. Workplace violence is a tragic sign of the times and the only growth category in on-the-job fatalities, according to ASSE. Homicide is the third leading cause of fatalities, trailing only vehicular accidents and falls. It frequently is directed at female workers: of 631 workplace homicides in 2003, 81 percent of the victims were women.
Stabbings accounted for 58 deaths, a fraction of the 487 fatal shootings. The food industry was touched by one such attack in July 2004, when a ConAgra meatpacker with two handguns shot four colleagues before taking his own life in a Kansas City, KS, plant.
Protecting workers from physical assault is a goal that dovetails with the new emphasis on plant security. Fences and security gates are becoming the norm, but Roberts Dairy Co. in Kansas City added those precautions in 1992, when a guard at the entry point was beaten, according to Dayle Reynolds, quality control and safety manager. Reynolds developed the dairy's OSHA program and conducts training at Roberts' five locations, in addition to assuring compliance with the Bioterrorism Act's security provisions.
Security also was a priority at Farmers Pride Inc., Fredericksburg, PA, long before September 2001. Employee welfare drove installation of fencing, a security checkpoint and surveillance cameras, according to Owner Scott Sechler. "We want employees to feel safe here, regardless of what is going on at home," he says. More recently the company signaled its concern about employee health by banning smoking on the premises, both inside and outside the plant.
Safety is a relative term, and processors must measure their performance against previous injury rates and outcomes. As grim as the recent Tyson deaths were, the company has improved since 1999, when seven workers died in the space of eight months. While declining to reveal the company's reportable injuries rate, Tyson's Mickelson notes, "We don't want to see anyone hurt on the job. That's why we're continuously seeking ways to prevent workplace injuries, illnesses and, especially, life-threatening situations." Safety training, plant safety audits and safety committees are the tools of choice, and automation is gradually replacing people for the most dangerous and injury-provoking tasks. But attitude may be the greatest defense against pain and suffering, and a safety-first attitude is shaped in the hearts of management and workers. How to reduce risk is understood; actually reducing injuries is a matter of company culture.
For more information:
John Wenzler, Bosch Rexroth,
Charlie Cannon, FMC FoodTech,
Mark DeCoster, J.J. Keller & Associates Inc.,
Alan Hoskin, National Safety Council,
Helge Hornis, Pepperl+Fuchs,
Brenda Flaherty, PMA Insurance Group,
Jeff Gellendin, Rockwell Automation,