Empowered Employees Embrace Culture of Hog Farm Safety

Ironically, on June 16, 2009, the day before power washer training was set to begin, Kelly Koehnen had a serious accident while power washing

Joe Vansickle, Senior Editor

June 18, 2010

8 Min Read
Empowered Employees Embrace Culture of Hog Farm Safety

Ironically, on June 16, 2009, the day before power washer training was set to begin, Kelly Koehnen had a serious accident while power washing.

She had washed the front of a farrowing crate and was stepping into the crate to continue. “I stepped into the farrowing crate and slipped, and because the grip on the wand of the power washer was loosened, the high-pressured water got me in the hand and caused a wound that required 15 stitches,” the 29-year-old says.

Even though she was wearing cotton gloves, the intense pressure of the water made a cut on her left hand. She was able to hold down the wand, put pressure on the wound, and call out to another employee to shut off the water supply. From there she ran to the office, where staff bandaged the wound.

Koehnen had previously worked two years at a hog farm without an accident before joining Camalot, a 2,400-sow, breed-to-wean system at Welcome, MN. The injury caused her to miss only a day of work, but she was on restricted work duty for 2-3 weeks.

She’s more careful now, but insists she received no formal training before she started her job power washing at the hog farm.

Training Regimen

Camalot farm manager Dave Labenz admits that not a lot of training has taken place over the years because staff is well-seasoned and “they know what to do and how to do it.”

Koehnen’s mishap was the first power washer accident at Camalot in about 12 years, he estimates. Camalot opened in 1987 as the first closed-herd multiplier for PIC in the United States and was converted to a breed-to-wean unit several years later.

But Labenz realizes that as worker’s compensation costs have become a larger part of the cost of producing a weaned pig, more dedicated worker safety and training programs have become necessary.

And, while power washing may seem like a low job on the totem pole, to him it is of critical importance that it is done correctly and safely.

“Power washing may be one of the hardest jobs on the farm, and it is also one of the most important things we can do when it comes to maintaining a quality pig for our owners,” Labenz stresses.

To improve worker safety, Sasha Gibson consults with Camalot and other Midwest sow farms producing weaned pigs for their owners. Gibson is employed in an educator capacity at Preferred Capital Management (PCM), which provides a variety of management services and is associated with the Fairmont (MN) Veterinary Clinic.

Culture of Safety

“What we are trying to create is a culture of safety. One of the ways we are working on doing that is through the Root Cause Analysis — a standard methodology that has been used in businesses to take an in-depth look at what happens in an accident,” Gibson points

There are two types of injuries that occur on a pig farm: minor injuries, such as getting bruised while moving a sow; or more serious events that require a doctor’s care, she says.

In any case, always tell your manager immediately. Otherwise, questions may arise as to whether the accident occurred at work (on the farm) or elsewhere, explains Tammy Steuber, human resources manager for PCM.

Waiting to report the incident and going to the doctor may also aggravate an injury, such as a finger accidentally poked by a needle, which may turn into something much worse, Gibson warns.

“Worker’s compensation is fairly strict in that you have 10 days to report an injury,” Steuber says, without questions being raised on the occurrence of the injury. “Early treatment obviously has better results, and not waiting takes it out of the employee’s hands and puts it into the hands of someone who has training to deal with it.”

Investigation of a farm accident occurs once the employee is back to work. As in the case of Koehnen, a Root Cause Analysis form was filled out with date and location and a brief description of what happened during the accident. Then, as a group, workers at the farm determined the likely contributors to the accident, Gibson says.

In this case, water pressure, slippery Tenderfoot flooring, lack of grip on the boots, water temperature, plus the small stature of the employee were all seen as contributing factors. To rectify the situation, employees suggested the power washer should be shut off when stepping over obstacles, new employees should be notified that Tenderfoot flooring can be very slippery, the bottoms of boots should be cleaned prior to pressure washing, and crates should be scraped and gloves worn. Wands should also be checked for wear.

Following the analysis, training guidelines and safety procedures on power washing were developed for employees to review. A periodic audit of boots is now conducted to make sure they are washed off prior to pressure washing.

“What has resulted (from this accident) is that training has become standardized so we can truly feel confident that each person and manager in the entire production system is getting the same information,” Steuber emphasizes.

The farm team at Camalot also uncovered some other possible contributors to accidents during power washing: a short person working with a long wand, baggy clothing, carpenter loops on coveralls and overhead pipes or lines. New employees may overlook leaky O-rings, which can lead to a burst of water and a broken hose endangering worker safety, Steuber adds.

The use of disinfectants is another key part of power washer training; protective eyewear must be worn during this process, and eyewash stations should be located nearby in case of an accident, Gibson asserts.
Long-time employees will be trained once on power washer training sheets, whereas new employees and part-time students will be trained twice.

Value of Teamwork

At Camalot and other PCM-managed farms, all employees are being consulted in developing the training guidelines, which empowers the employees, Gibson says.

“Root Cause Analysis brings the farm teams together, giving them some ownership and then buying into the resolutions,” Steuber explains. “In this way, it becomes something they want to do instead of something they have to do.”

That’s the first part of empowerment, Gibson adds. The second part that comes with the new culture is when an employee feels empowered to inform a co-worker or even the manager that he or she has failed to follow a required worker safety practice.

Gibson acknowledges that building a culture of safety takes 3-5 years to fully implement. “It takes a long time for people to believe it, act on it, and then for it to become a culture and second nature.”

To speed that process, Steuber says worker’s compensation safety training is conducted four times a year — twice in small groups on the farm and twice more in large groups at other locations. Currently, the farms have a challenge to implement one safety improvement project of their choice by September.

Job Rotation

Power washing is a big deal because of its potential impact on animal health, and it is a high-risk worker safety issue, second on the hog farm only to moving hogs, Steuber says.

Cross-training and job rotation have been implemented at Camalot for power washing and other jobs to lessen job fatigue and repetitive injury, according to Gibson.

Repetitive injuries are not accidents, but they occur from repeatedly performing the same task. Spreading out the workload reduces the repetition.

Fifteen-year veteran farrowing manager Diane Ringquist says the time had come to focus more on worker safety, due to the rising cost of insurance.

She understands the need for training and job rotation to avoid injuries. There was a little resistance to that change at first. “But the more you think about it, it’s not a bad idea, and it makes you stop and think before you do something like pressure washing or moving big animals like sows,” she says. “For instance, we used to use steam here when pressure washing. We don’t do that any more because it was dangerous, and lots of times hoses would explode.”

Despite the training, none of the eight employees at Camalot relishes having to take their turn at power washing, admits Ringquist.

While Koehnen still power washes, she doesn’t like it much, so she says it’s nice to be able to rotate and do what she enjoys more — working in the breeding area.

“Sharing the workload makes it feel more like a team, and there isn’t so much of a line in the sand between breeding and weaning. Then, it isn’t just the people in farrowing who always have to wean pigs,” Labenz adds.

Last winter provided another example of how sharing the workload benefitted Camalot. “We had snowstorms, and Interstate 90 (across southwest Minnesota) was closed several times due to poor visibility and drifts. We were half-staffed at best, but because of cross-training, other people could fill in for those absent and do those jobs,” he explains.

Labenz sums up: “If we can save one person from getting hurt, it is more than justified to take the time that PCM has put into this training program.”

About the Author(s)

Joe Vansickle

Senior Editor

Joe, a native of Indiana, is a graduate of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He worked on daily newspapers in Albert Lea, MN and Fairmont, MN, before joining the staff of National Hog Farmer in 1977. Joe specializes in animal health issues, federal regulations, environmental concerns, food safety and writing about the swine veterinary community. Joe has won several writing awards from the Livestock Publications Council. In 2002, he earned the Master Writer Program Award from the American Agricultural Editors’ Association.

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