Although the food processing industry has made substantial strides in worker safety and injury reduction, there’s still opportunity for improvement.
At several food processors I've visited, ergonomics solutions have helped cut down both the incidence and severity of worker injuries; however, better implementation and follow-through are still needed for these employers and their workers to achieve better results. Specifically, there are four key areas for improvement.
- More comprehensive documentation. Many industrial organizations don’t document ergonomic improvements effectively, including equipment changes and recording who works on what tasks and when they were completed. This applies especially to the implementation of safety measures and ergonomics solutions where the burden for documentation cannot rest solely on the shoulders of the engineers and supervisors. For these initiatives to have the impact anticipated, workers need to record the measures taken and actively report any issues, as well as results or production gains achieved.
A healthy ergonomics process includes documentation of job rotation plans and a system where production employees are fully engaged in raising issues and proposing improvements to the safety department. These principles must be ingrained into an organization’s safety culture.
- Active participation by all involved. Worker safety and injury prevention may start with the active participation of engineers and supervisors, but it requires the full engagement and participation of the workers for whom all these measures are designed. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many situations where breakdowns in these processes undermine the effectiveness of safety and ergonomics measures. It’s critical for workers not only to implement safety practices and measures created to make their jobs safer and easier, but also to be fully engaged in the process and play an active role in safe work practices and efforts to improve productivity.
One effective strategy for implementing improvements involves prototyping an idea in one plant and getting production employee input before rolling the idea out to the company’s other plants. It’s well worth the extra time to get production employees’ input before making any change. Indeed, this type of input from production employees often is essential for the long-term success of any ergonomics solutions.
- Effective equipment maintenance practices. In all industries, poor maintenance of equipment often leads to unsafe workplaces and higher rates of accidents and injuries. This is especially the case with poultry workers who are more at risk to develop repetitive motion injuries when their knives aren’t sharpened correctly or as frequently as needed. This is also an area where active worker participation and training is critical; even within the framework of a well-designed knife-sharpening routine, employees need to recognize they should report immediately any issues with their cutlery.
A similar issue in food processing and distribution involves wheel and caster maintenance. Poor maintenance of wheels can lead to additional force needed to move the cart, especially when loaded with heavy totes of product. By keeping the wheels in good condition through proper preventative maintenance, employees can move carts with lower force, reducing the risk of musculoskeletal disorder injuries. Strapping machines should be kept in good working order. If they break down, product may have to be handled multiple times, increasing the risk for shoulder and back injury, and making the process inefficient.
- Sharing solutions. Even with effective communications capabilities that so many organizations have today, including sophisticated company intranets, email systems, and reporting practices, many businesses fail to transfer success in one operation or facility to another. In food processing, we’ve seen results achieved from solutions implemented in one plant not instantly adapted for other plants or comparable functions in the same facility.
While making such transfers does involve the commitment of resources, the reduction in injuries and improvements in efficiency often make these rather simple decisions. Further, it’s not just a matter of cataloguing best practices and procedures and giving checklists to supervisors; the implementation process, including any worker education and training, needs to be maintained for effective implementation to each additional plant or operation.
Of course, many practical improvements can be applied to food & beverage processing plants. Yet, even with an inventory of great ideas, if management does not engage production employees from the outset, the results may fall short of expectations. With effective documentation, sound equipment maintenance and idea sharing that promotes production worker engagement, processing facilities can deploy their limited resources to achieve measurable gains in worker safety and productivity.