Safety First

Leading the safety charge is an ex-military safety officer, Perry Parks, who served the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. Parks, a certified Safety Professional (CSP), is the no-nonsense safety director for Murphy-Brown, LLC, the management organization that runs the Smithfield's Hog Production Group. Parks first signed on as the safety manager of the Laurinburg (NC) Division (then owned by Carroll's

Leading the safety charge is an ex-military safety officer, Perry Parks, who served the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. Parks, a certified Safety Professional (CSP), is the no-nonsense safety director for Murphy-Brown, LLC, the management organization that runs the Smithfield's Hog Production Group.

Parks first signed on as the safety manager of the Laurinburg (NC) Division (then owned by Carroll's Foods) in May 1994. In March 2001, after Smithfield Foods decided to merge their hog companies, Parks was named Murphy-Brown safety director.

“What I learned through working in the Laurinburg Division, we are now trying to apply company-wide because it has proven to be successful at reducing injuries, and therefore, the costs of injuries,” Parks says.

Murphy-Brown currently has roughly 2,000 employees involved in the on-farm production of hogs in its three hog divisions. The Brown's of Carolina Laurinburg Division remains at the center of the employee safety initiative and serves as the proving grounds for new safety practices and programs. The division now encompasses about 40 farms and approximately 250 men and women working on those farms.

New Hire Orientation

One of Parks' first challenges was developing an effective orientation program, then convincing the human resources staff that he needed a half day with any new hire.

“There are certain safety issues specific to hog operations, that these people need to know about before they ever get on the farm,” he stresses. Additional information is collected on each individual's experience with animals, machinery, etc. “If someone comes in with no tractor experience, we make a note that he/she cannot operate a tractor until they are properly trained,” he says.

Monthly Safety Audits

“The basic backbone of the safety program is a monthly safety audit that is completed by each department manager,” explains Parks. The monthly audits reinforce key safety procedures as well as help to identify any safety lapses in an operation. Managers of each unit must also complete a self-audit of their workplace every month. “This is where you teach the manager what's important to the safety program. They look for hazards, things that might hurt people. Each category is ranked ‘satisfactory’ or ‘unsatisfactory.’ Unsatisfactory items must be fixed and documented.”

Photos taken at the 2,400-sow Brown's of Carolina Farm #7684 near Maxton, NC, help document key safety features emphasized in the safety program. The farm, managed by Anita Hagler, has won several of the company's Quarterly Safe Farm Awards and epitomizes what can be accomplished with good management practices and a strong commitment to safety, says Parks.

Monthly walk-through audits begin in the office area with the primary focus on “the green board.” The dark green bulletin board has emergency phone numbers and specific directions to the farm with odometer readings in tenths of a mile. Armed with this vital information, any employee can make an emergency call that will buy precious minutes.

Two real-life examples reinforce the importance of the green board postings. Shortly after Parks became safety director, the problem of inadequate directions was reinforced when it took a rescue squad 45 minutes to find a farm. Luckily, it was not a life-threatening emergency, says Parks, acknowledging that building the farms in isolated locations often exacerbate the problem.

Still, Parks assures, the posted action plan worked effectively when a fire broke out in another unit. “We had fire trucks on location within eight minutes because we had exact directions to the farm when the fire was called in,” he notes.

Each farm also has a posted exit plan for evacuating the facility. It includes instructions for sounding the alarm and identifies a predetermined gathering point to confirm everyone is out safely. The plan must be practiced at least once a year.

The isolated farm locations add another major challenge. “The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard of a good safety workplace program requires that you must be able to provide first aid within the first 4-6 minutes,” Parks says. “With a heart attack, electrocution, severe bleeding — you can't wait. We now have at least one person on every farm who is first aid and CPR trained.”

A monthly housekeeping audit grades the cleanliness of seven general areas (exterior, office, showers, laundry room, biosecurity, medication/supply room, shop) and respective buildings (breeding/gestation or finishing). Each area is graded on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 is best).

“Housekeeping and safety go hand in hand,” Parks asserts. “Slippery floors, flies, disease, scattered tools and equipment and poor work environment are safety issues.”

Fire extinguishers are checked every 30 days by the unit manager and the department manager, as well as inspected by a professional annually.

Monthly Safety Meetings

Education, training and enforcement are major parts of the safety program Parks has initiated. After farm managers receive their training from the division's safety manager, they in turn train farm employees. Attendance by employees is mandatory.

A “training documentation” sheet records the date, topic, signatures of employees attending the meeting and the farm manager/instructor's signature.

Hazard Communication

“There is a big push to educate people who are working with chemicals in the workplace so they understand that those chemicals present a danger to them, now or later in life, or to their offspring,” Parks notes. Injuries may be acute, such as dermatitis or burns to the skin or eyes, or they may be chronic, causing cancer or birth defects.

“You have got to tell them what the chemical is, provide labels for containers and make sure those chemicals stay in those containers,” he explains.

In addition, material safety data sheets (MSDS) are required by law. “Any time a new chemical is introduced to the workplace, an MSDS sheet must accompany it,” he adds.

MSDS sheets include:

  • Name of product (chemical or trade name);

  • Ingredients (government and industrial hygienists identify what is dangerous to human health);

  • Physical characteristics;

  • Fire safe data (critical to fire department for controlling different kinds of fires);

  • Reactivity (tells what you can and cannot mix with the chemical);

  • Health information (how it enters the body, consequences of exposure/symptoms and antidotes/first aid);

  • How to clean up and dispose of spills; and

  • Type of equipment required to work with the chemical (i.e. eye protection, respirator, protective clothing, etc.).

The MSDS sheets are kept in a three-ring binder located where all employees can find it quickly. This is critically important in emergencies. In the case of an asthma attack triggered by a disinfectant, the farm staff quickly gave the emergency response personnel the MSDS sheet with vital first aid information.

Personal Protective Equipment

Ear plugs: The OSHA standards say noise levels greater than 85 decibels require hearing protection. That means an employee can be exposed to up to 85 decibels over an eight-hour period before hearing protection is required.

Normal conversation is about 70 decibels; a whisper is 40 decibels. Telephones are often set to ring at about 90 decibels. The threshold of pain is at about 120 decibels.

Parks found noise levels in a breeding-gestation barn during feeding are between 100-110 decibels; the piercing sound of a squealing pig is between 112-120 decibels.

“We require employees to wear hearing protection in places where we know noise levels are high,” explains Parks. “We've gone to an all-ear-plug policy in the Laurinburg units. That was a decision by the safety committee and the (division's) general manager. It is not a Murphy-Brown-wide policy — yet,” he adds.

Safety glasses: “When I first came here, no one wore safety glasses; eye injuries were fairly common,” Parks explains. Injuries were more common while clipping needle teeth, and when working on overhead projects.

Parks began requiring eye protection for specific jobs in the Laurinburg division. In May 2000, they initiated a policy requiring safety glasses be worn any time an employee is working in the barns. “We haven't had an eye injury here since,” he says. By comparison, from May to November last year, they had nine eye injuries in the other Murphy-Brown divisions.

Rubber gloves: Rubber gloves are required any time an employee handles chemicals, such as disinfectants or solvents. Many employees doing artificial insemination or pig processing wear the gloves strictly for sanitation.

Metatarsal guard boots: Workers compensation records showed that foot injuries in the Laurinburg and Warsaw divisions totaled $35,000 over a five-year period. The fairly common problem of pigs and sows stepping on employee's feet sent Parks looking for better boots.

He found a durable boot with composite sole, steel toes, a floating metatarsal guard and a six-month warranty. Made by Leehi, they cost $62/pair. Parks estimates it would cost $42,000 to outfit employees in the two divisions. The regular rubber boots currently used cost only $10/pair but only last a couple of months, so the annual cost difference isn't significant, he says.

“We also have to consider that some people go home with bruised feet and say nothing. They're walking around with sore feet for 2-3 days; what does that do to their productivity?” he asks.

Machine Guarding

There are three ways to guard the moving mechanisms of machines. “The best and preferred method is to put an actual guard over the pinch point or danger point,” says Parks. This includes making sure the guards cover motors, gears, sprockets, pullers, augers and mills. A second option is to turn the machine in such a manner that no one can come in contact with it. The least preferred method, used when it is impossible to cover or block contact, is posting DANGER alert signage.

Lock Out, Tag Out

“Lock out, tag out means bringing the piece of equipment to zero energy state — whether it is hydraulically driven, air driven, electrically driven,” Parks explains. “You have got to disconnect the energy source.”

Whether you disconnect, unplug or turn off an energy source, the power source must be locked out. Whenever possible, a padlock should be used so no one can reconnect the power source.

If the equipment cannot be locked in the “off” position, the next best option is to hang a red-and-white bordered tag at the disconnect point that says “Do Not Operate” or “Do Not Turn On.” The tags are signed and dated.

“The only person who can remove the tag or the lock is the person who puts it on,” emphasizes Parks.

Electrical Upgrades

Parks found the common GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) to be inadequate for the heavy-duty use of pressure washers. A common household GFCI trips at between 5 and 7 milli-amps.

Basically, the GFCI measures the voltage as it goes in one side of the circuit, loops through a piece of equipment and comes back to the receptacle. Any time there's a difference between the voltage going out and the voltage coming back, it means that leaking voltage is creating the potential for a shock.

Parks found a company that builds a heavy-duty GFCI that fits in the regular electrical panel to protect the 220-volt pressure washer lines. “They trip more than regular circuit breakers,” he observes. “But, if they trip too often, there's a problem somewhere.”

Parks also believes that if you have an electrical wire running through a place where you'll likely get an electrical short, you're better off to protect it with conduit. This practice exceeds building codes, but it also removes the possibility of any varmint gnawing on it.

Finally, Parks suggests that every manager spend $12 on a socket tester that can tell you whether it is grounded properly, if the polarity is reversed, whether a wire is “hot” or whether a circuit is protected.

Rollover Protection (ROP)

Seat belts: Parks says it was not unusual to see employees operating company-owned trucks and tractors without seat belts when he first arrived. He pleaded with top management: “This is plain crazy. We're exposing ourselves to someone getting paralyzed or killed for no reason. It's state law and it's company policy; we're just not enforcing it.”

That changed. Now, a first infraction will draw a written warning. A second infraction brings three days suspension without pay. The third incidence results in immediate discharge.

All company-owned tractors have rollover protection and seat belts. Older tractors have been retrofitted with the safety features.

General Duty Clause

OSHA uses this clause when they do not have a specific regulation to deal with a hazard. The regulatory clause simply states the employer has an obligation to provide a safe and healthy workplace, Parks explains.

The clause is more likely to be applied to agriculture due to concerns about blood-borne pathogens and ergonomic injuries. For example, “sharps,” such as scalpel blades and needles, are commonly used in pork production. OSHA sometimes utilizes the general duty clause to site employers when they are concerned about AIDS, hepatitis and other infectious diseases spread through body fluids.

Although farming operations do not have to abide by the general duty standard, Parks acknowledges that “as an employer, we have a moral obligation to protect our employees because the danger exists.”

With any injury involving blood, employees are instructed to treat themselves whenever possible to avoid exposing others. If assistance is needed, the use of rubber gloves is required.

Proper cleanup and disposal of blood and body fluids is accomplished with inexpensive spill kits ($15-20) containing rubber gloves, something to soak up the fluid and a viral-killing agent.

Modified Duty Roster

“If a doctor restricts an employee from being around animals, we still bring them in to do farm office work, load the washer, empty the dryer — whatever they can do to be useful on the farm,” he says.

Most companies have learned that there's a direct correlation between the length of time someone's out of work and the chance that they will ever return to work. “Getting somebody back to work in any capacity is better for the employee and the company in the long run,” Parks says.

Measuring Success

All Murphy-Brown production companies have safety committees that work on solving problems. “Safety has to be integrated into all parts of an operation; it is not a side issue,” says Parks.

“Safety is not like saying: ‘if you spend a hundred dollars [on prevention] you will get a hundred-thousand dollars back.’ The payback is in what didn't happen — and that's difficult to measure,” he continues.

Lower accident rates and reduced worker's comp costs are indicators. “If you look at the accident trends — a good safety program will show a downward trend. The whole purpose is in keeping from hurting people.

“The easiest way to measure costs is to take the dollars spent last year and divide by the number of employees,” he says.

When Parks first became Murphy-Brown's safety director, worker's comp costs per division ran from $950/employee down to $160/employee in the Laurinburg division. New goals are set for each division each year.

The worker's comp costs can have a significant impact on the company's operating profits. Their goal for 2001 was a 30% reduction company-wide.

“We are self-insured,” explains Parks. “Whatever an accident costs, that's the amount you subtract from the bottom line.

“Smithfield looks at the costs [to run the program, injury reduction] for evidence that the program is working. But, it's important to remember [fewer] accidents alone don't pay for a good safety program. You can have an excellent safety program and have someone get killed. Or, you may not have anyone get hurt all year — even without a safety program. The goal of a good safety program is to have your overall accident and injury trend down,” he concludes.

Parks is willing to provide additional information about building effective safety programs. He can be reached via e-mail at