Finding and implementing ways to reduce workplace injuries should be every pork producer's goal, says Kenneth Swallow, safety director, for Circle 4 Farms, Milford, Utah. You have far too much invested in your workforce and your operation to run the risk of injuries that could be avoided. What's more, providing a safe workplace is simply the right thing to do.

Still, it's easy to overlook possible hazards. On a daily basis you simply don't see problems in what is an all-too-familiar environment.

"It's important that working safely be a condition of employment," says Loretta Leman, staff development manager, Swine Graphics Enterprises, Webster City, Iowa. "If an employee isn't working safely, it should be dealt with like any other job performance problem."

Here Swallow and Leman offer a list of top 10 ideas to improve the safety on your pork operation.

1. Safety culture
"You have to create an atmosphere or way of working within the company that promotes safe behavior," says Swallow. "This means having shared beliefs, practices and attitudes throughout your entire staff and operation. Safety has to be as important as productivity issues."

When it comes to safety, there are a lot of misconceptions. One is that safety personnel are the ones who are responsible for safety. In reality, every person in your organization is accountable. Another myth is that some jobs will always have accidents. This isn't the case if management and employees have proper training.

Other fallacies are that being safe costs money, and employees see safety as a burden. Once again, if you promote a safety-conscious work environment, it will become second nature.

"Our goal this year is to continuously improve our safety program," Leman says.

A big part of this is to build awareness, so people take safety more seriously. This is especially true with managers. "Safety comes down to them," she notes. "It's ultimatley their responsibility to make sure that employees are taught proper safety measures and be held accountable to working safely everyday."

But employees are responsible as well. They have to realize how much lost time costs the company, as well as the toll it takes on their personal lives, says Leman.

For instance, back and knee injuries are common on pork operations. Remind employees that such injuries can impact simple tasks that they take for granted like walking down a flight of stairs or playing soccer with their children. What's more, those injuries can have lingering affects for the rest of their lives.

2. Measurable Activities
Conduct monthly safety meetings for all employees, including management. During these meetings you could review a different safety procedure each month. Topics can include how to make contact with animals, slips and falls, lock out/tag out and equipment safety, just to name a few.

It's also a good idea to conduct a monthly safety audit of your operation. Swallow provides his managers with a checklist each month. It's broken down into different categories including housekeeping, fire prevention, personal protection, electrical hazards, air quality and ventilation. This provides the managers with a guide to check the safety of each barn. He encourages the managers to include their team members in this process to get more extensive feedback. This gives you the opportunity to have a successful safety program and identify where changes are needed.

3. Written Procedures As with most business activities, it's wise to document procedures, and certainly safety is one area that will benefit from this. Swallow recommends putting your safety expectations down in writing. Here's his list of the minimum areas to address:

  • Early return-to-work program
  • Accident investigation
  • Hazardous conditions
  • Lock out/tag out
  • Confined-space procedures
  • Working with a welder or cutting torch
  • Moving animals
  • Biosecurity protocols
  • Tractor and equipment safety
  • Accident reporting
  • Safety inspections and self-audits

You don't have to reinvent the wheel here, there are places and people to solicit for help. For information about early return-to-work programs, check out the National Safety Council's Web site at www.nsc.org; Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Web site at www.osha.gov; and the Iowa/Illinois Safety Council at (800) 568-2495.

Swine Graphics' insurance company conducts annual fire-safety inspections on the company's farms, but Leman and the production managers want to start monthly self-audits that include all aspects of farm safety.

Check with your insurance company to see what kind of safety- related services it provides.

Leman, with the help of an outside safety expert, is developing a company safety manual specific to Swine Graphics' needs, which is a good idea for operations of all sizes.

4. Response to Unsafe Behavior
Swallow stresses that your response toward safety issues has to be consistent every time, not just when it's convenient for your schedule. By not responding to safety situations every time, you're setting yourself up for a potential disaster.
"Asking me to overlook a simple safety violation would be like asking me to compromise my entire attitude toward the value of your life," Swallow tells employees.

If he does confront unsafe behavior, Swallow starts with a one-on-one discussion with the employee. Then, he has a meeting with the employee's manager to find out why the incident occurred. In severe cases, you may have to place a written warning into the employee's file.

5. Provide Incentives
Do whatever works to get your employees enthusiastic about safety. Some of Swallow's ideas include providing awards for the safest farm or for divisions with no accidents. He also implements fun games for the employees such as safety bingo – where they can express their knowledge and learn more about safety.

6. Investigate Every Claim
First of all, have a written procedure in terms of how you investigate an injury claim. The key here is consistency.

Next, look into the root cause of the injury. For instance, a worker cut his arm on a piece of metal that was sticking out of the wall. When asked about it, the employee says it has been that way for a long time, but no one ever needed stitches before. The point is, if this part of the wall had been fixed when it was first noticed, an employee wouldn't have gotten hurt.

A good way to handle claims is with a safety committee involving all management levels and production employees. It's best to get people with at least one year's experience on the job, because of their familiarity with the operation. It's also important to select employees who have a passion for safety issues and are willing to help focus on prevention and policy compliance.

Leman likes the idea of a safety committee and hopes Swine Graphics has one at some point.

7. Manage Claims
When it comes to injury claims, don't take anything for granted. Make sure all claims are legitimate and that you treat every claim and every employee exactly the same, no matter who is involved in the incident.

8. Charge Back
"Every worker's compensation dollar spent needs to be charged back to the department or farm where the injury occurred," says Swallow.

Another suggestion is to develop and include safety criteria on performance evaluations. "If you don't measure safety, it won't get done," he contends.

The evaluation can include anything from whether an employee attended all required safety meetings to his/her safety track record to how promptly each accident was addressed.

9. Early Return-to-Work Program
This type of program gets an employee back to work quickly, even if it's not at his or her regular job. Make sure to write the job offer based on the doctor's recommendation and have the employee sign and date it.

For instance, if an employee suffered a knee injury, maybe you can offer him a job in the office until he gets back to full strength. He could answer the phone, log records into the computer or file. This lets the employee continue with a regular work schedule and still be productive.

Most importantly, have a written procedure with bona-fide, light-duty job offers spelled out. Swallow says you'll want to accommodate everything.

"Lost-time claims cost five times more than an early return-to-work program," says Swallow.

Keep in mind, not all injuries allow an employee the ability to return to work early, but many of them do.

10. Just Do It
"Safety should be part of your business plan," stresses Swallow. But you have to be committed to making it happen.

"Safety is so critical," concludes Leman. "No job is so rushed that you can't take the time to do it safely. Every dollar you can save on being safe, goes to the bottom line instead of workman's compensation or time off for injuries."

Putting Safety in Perspective
Here are a few statistics that give you an idea of how important safety is to the agricultural industry. According to the National Safety Council:

  • There were 5,200 workplace fatalities in 2000 due to unintentional injuries.
  • On the job, 3.9 million American workers suffered disabling injuries in 2000. Construction workers had the highest number of deaths among major industry groups, with 1,220 deaths and 470,000 disabling injuries.
  • The agriculture industry accounted for 780 deaths and 130,000 disabling injuries in 2000. Agriculture workers had the second highest death rate among the major industry divisions.
  • Work injuries cost Americans $131.2 billion in 2000, with the agricultural industry accounting for $3.8 billion of the total. That exceeds the combined profits of the top 13 Fortune 500 companies.