An on-farm wellness program, mandatory annual health screenings and doctor-approved, job selection procedures help keep National Farms' employees informed, safe and healthy. The program also helps keep worker's compensation costs down. Linda Rahder, Safety Coordinator for National Hog Farms Inc., Atkinson, NE, shares some of her insights about working with employee safety and health programs.

Would you recommend setting up programs for employees?

Rahder: You definitely need to set up a program. A crucial contributor to the success of the program is total management support. If the training program is set up and defined prior to the start of training, it is more credible. Setting up programs gives employees guidelines. However, guidelines should always be reviewed and open to change as the job tasks and materials change. Make safety a routine, not a habit.

What would be involved in setting up a safety and health program for employees and where can a producer find resources for such a program?

Rahder: Conduct lots of research! Read safety publications and attend seminars.

Safety consultants are available who have initiated programs with different employers.

Contact other pork producers and see what works for them.

Ask employees for input to make them feel a part of the program; they will put more effort into making it work. Form a safety committee or peer group to develop the program along with management. Ask for employee input and feedback about the program. Be open to change. Customize your program to your employees and environment. Change helps keep people interested.

What are the main topics involved in a good safety program?

Rahder: There are several important topic areas to cover. These areas include:

* Personal protective equipment (including hearing, sight and respiratory).

* Chemical awareness/material safety data sheet training and the employees' right to know about hazardous substances used in the operation.

* Accident prevention (including back safety, good housekeeping, material handling, slips-trips-falls, ladder safety, welding safety, power tool safety, etc.).

* Emergency action plans (including what to do in the case of weather-related emergencies, fire emergencies and medical emergencies).

* Lock out/tag out-electrical emergencies.

* Confined space entry procedures.

* Fire prevention-fire extinguisher training.

* How to handle/avoid bloodborne pathogens.

* Protecting your hearing.

* Proper handling of animals.

When is the best time to conduct training? Is it best to train employees when they are new to the position?

Rahder: You definitely need to conduct training on company time, and employees need to be paid for the time spent in training. Don't tie up an employee's break or lunch periods. The employee should feel that safety is as important as production.

Time your training so it doesn't interfere with peak production time. Allow the managers to have input on when the training will be conducted. We shoot for just prior to breaks or lunch to maximize the employee's time.

It is best to review all training topics with new employees before sending them to their job site. We conduct a new-employee orientation after employees have completed a post-employment-offer physical. This is usually a half-day training session that includes all Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)-required training topics and an on-site film based on the type of work an employee will be doing and how to perform those tasks safely.

Do you recommend employees receive medical exams? When do you suggest medical exams be performed and how often?

Rahder: I highly recommend post-employment-offer screenings/medical exams. Employees should receive exams on an annual basis.

In our industry, post-employment-offer physicals provide a good baseline and will help determine if the employee is capable of doing the job.

We try to practice good hiring tactics. After the initial job application, we have the employee go through a "conditional-offer-of-employment" process.

An employee reviews both the job description and a medical questionnaire during a post-employment-offer interview. Both the job description and the questionnaire accompany the employee to the physical.

Doctors at the clinic we use have conducted on-site evaluations of the tasks that our employees perform. This gives the doctor a good indication if the employee is actually capable of doing a specific job prior to placing them in that position.

We have also initiated a wellness program that allows our employees 15 minutes each day to walk and earn incentive prizes for their achievements.

Our company pays a portion of outside exercise programs and stop-smoking programs. We see this as a huge benefit both to the employees and to National Farms to have healthy employees.

All employees receive annual physicals. We believe routine screening makes the employer and the employee aware of potential injuries before those injuries occur and become insurance claims. In our industry, particularly with high audible levels and heavy lifting and labor, these routine screenings can help us to prevent injuries from occurring.

How much time should be spent on a safety and health program per employee?

Rahder: Attention to safety training should never end. There should be no maximum limit. Many things are worth repeating and can be done in a manner that employees don't even realize they are learning. We do things like putting safety slogans on employee check stubs, adding safety tidbits for the topic of the month on employees' weekly production reports, posters, etc.

Monthly training is most effective for our program. We spend only 15-20 minutes on the topic of the month. We have provided training on different topics and have seen good and bad points on all issues.

We started with management conducting the training but found employees were getting a broad range of information. Then we changed to having the "safety officer" conducting the training to ensure we were giving accurate and consistent information. This worked for a time, but we found with this approach that everyone relied on the safety officer to be responsible for safety.

Safety is everyone's responsibility. We are now back to management conducting the training with the safety officer supplying the materials and information. Someone from upper management also sits in on the sessions. This seems to be the best of both worlds. Hands-on training is optimal so the employee can not only hear, but see and do. Get everyone involved in the training. Short quizzes are given after every session to make sure employees are retaining the information.

Should there be a training review session?

Rahder: OSHA requires that some programs have an annual review. I don't believe you can over-train on any subject. Diversity on how the training is conducted is important so the topics stay interesting. Safety should be part of an employee's job and part of their lives. It is good to have safety become part of the routine so that in an actual emergency situation, an employee has routine to fall back on during a chaotic situation. We also conduct safety training which will apply in employees' everyday lives.

What is the cost of a safety and health program per employee?

Rahder: This is difficult to determine. We really haven't put a price on safety. There are many ways to cut costs by constantly re-evaluating your programs and their effectiveness. We have incentive programs that reward the employees for working safely. However, the money we spend on these programs is more than saved in worker's compensation costs and medical bills.

Can you suggest information and resources regarding employee health and safety programs?

Rahder: There is a virtually endless supply of contacts. Your worker's compensation insurance provider is a good resource. They often offer free training sessions and materials. And, there are various safety consultants and numerous publications available.

Your best resources are your own employees and employees of others who do the job every day. Your program will be more successful if you customize it to fit your employees.

In your opinion, what are the main points to remember when developing an employee health and safety program?

Rahder: Keep it simple and make sure the elements of the program apply to all employees. You can give specific, more in-depth training to those who need it. The main points to remember are:

Review often.

Get management to buy-in and support the program.

Believe that safety is as important as production.

Help employees believe they are working safely for themselves, not for the company and/or OSHA.

Constantly look for new resources and remember, stay open to employee input and feedback.

Re-evaluate your programs often to keep them effective.

Many of the employees going to work every day on the nation's hog farms have had little or no past exposure to either animals or agriculture before starting their jobs.

Jerome Geiger, a consulting veterinarian, Kersey, CO, says it is essential that all pork production employees be shown how to avoid injuries. "Even if the employee has experience with animals or agriculture, health and safety programs are still very valuable," he says.

Geiger works with his pork producer clients to help implement health and safety programs within their operations. He suggests producers who are interested in setting up a health and safety program can start with a few simple steps.

"First, do a walk-through inspection of your own operation, just to become more sensitive to safety on your farm," Geiger says. Look for situations or circumstances that may lead to injuries. Review employee records to see what types of injuries have historically occurred on your operation or similar operations.

The second step is to seek out available resources. Geiger suggests contacting the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), insurance companies or the local extension service for starters.

Third, begin the training. "Maybe start the training process with yourself," Geiger says. "Take advantage of training sessions that might be available through local health-care providers or the Red Cross."

Paul Sundberg, vice president, veterinary issues, NPPC, Des Moines, IA, says producers have to recognize they have a responsibility to keep their employees safe.

For more information regarding employee safety and health programs, contact NPPC at (515) 223-2764.