In Nebraska, meat is king. But a good steak shouldn't come at the cost of the physical well-being of employees who process the beef. In fact, beef, pork, sausage, turkey, and egg processors have historically had some of the highest injury and illness rates in general industry.
To address the problem, OSHA's Omaha Area Office developed the Experimental Program for the Meat Processing Industry in February 2000. The program has proven to be a tremendous success, both in reducing injury and illness rates among participating establishments and in promoting dialogue and building trust among participants.
Like other OSHA partnerships, the program includes an enforcement element. However, the major emphasis is on outreach, and the partnership group holds bimonthly meetings to address safety and health issues within the industry. Representatives from partner facilities, organized labor, the Nebraska Department of Labor, nonprofit safety organizations, and OSHA join together for formal presentations and open discussions on a wide range of issues. Past topics include hearing conservation; ergonomics; slips, trips, and falls; personal protective equipment; accident investigations; recordkeeping; discipline policies; confined space entry; how to train bilingual employees; and how to quantify the value of a safety program.
The partners are active participants in the meetings. They share their own experiences and offer suggestions to facilities struggling with particular issues, help line up guest speakers, and even ask for assistance from OSHA representatives—something unheard of just a few years ago.
Partners are required to provide injury and illness data to the Omaha Area Office semiannually. OSHA also requests that they provide periodic information about activities or improvements made to their safety and health programs.
Trust between partners developed slowly but seems to strengthen with each meeting. Many of the participating establishments are competitors and were reluctant to discuss specific details about their operations during group meetings. Trade secrets are never discussed, but participants have come to recognize that employee safety and health transcends commercial interests. Ben Bare, OSHA's Omaha Area Office Director, said participants are now more willing to share information about changes and improvements they have made to their safety programs and the results.
"The networking aspect of the partnership is particularly helpful because safety managers in similar companies share their best practices," said Jill Williams, safety manager for Nebraska Beef Limited, an Omaha meat processing company with about 1,000 employees. "It's great to learn from each other so we can all make solid improvements in our safety programs."
To date, the 43 partner facilities have experienced a 32 percent decrease in lost workdays due to injuries and illnesses (LWDII) and a 44 percent cut in their total recordable case rates.
Kathleen Krantz, technical resource director for the Greater Omaha Packing Company, said that since joining the partnership, her company's LWDII rate has dropped 60 percent. "We keep raising the bar, and our goal is zero," she said. "I'm a firm believer that by sharing information and putting the best practices into place, we can make a real difference."
For those few partners who have not yet experienced a drop in their injury rates, the Omaha Area Office is providing individualized assistance to hone in on problem areas and identify ways to improve them.
"This is a unique program that has brought the meat industry together, not only to identify hazards, but to make progress in correcting them," said Bare. "At first, the participants looked to us at OSHA for all the answers, but they slowly realized that they already had the information among themselves. All they needed was for OSHA to act as a facilitator to bring them together so they could share that information. The result is a positive for everyone involved." JSHQ
Fletcher is a compliance assistance specialist in OSHA's Omaha Area Office.