McCain Foods' Grand Island, Neb., appetizer plant makes fun products – but takes a nononsense approach to safety.

The familiar admonition says “there’s safety in numbers.” However, when the topic is employee safety, you could say that less is more. The safest food plants are those with the fewest number of recordable incidents.

By that measure, McCain Foods’ Grand Island, Neb., plant is one of the nation’s best.

The government’s total incident rate (TIR) measures safety using the equation of number of injuries multiplied by 200,000, divided by work hours. McCain officials note that while the TIR average involving the company’s peers (frozen fruit and vegetable plants) is more than 8.0, McCain’s 10 U.S. operations exceeded their combined total plant goal rate of 4.22 and actually came in at 3.75 during fiscal 2007. McCain’s fiscal 2008 goal (for the year ending June 2008) has been set at a TIR of 3.0 and through the first five months of the fiscal year, operations delivered a sparkling TIR performance of 2.78 companywide.

Here’s the kicker. McCain’s Grand Island facility already is a top performer. It was one of the safest in the nation with a TIR of 0.67 during 2007 – that’s about half an injury per year.

It’s a statistic made even more impressive when you consider that Grand Island has big numbers in other areas. It’s a 165,000-square-foot operation with 410 people and nine production lines. As one of two primary appetizer plants within McCain, Grand Island produces as many as 150 different types of snacks and appetizers – from battered onion rings and cheese sticks to sweet potato fries and brownie bites.

It’s Marvin Polacek’s job as training coordinator – and Donna Prather’s job as a health and wellness specialist – to make sure that product quality and workplace safety issues aren’t lost in the hustle and bustle of 14 continuous weeklong shifts (with one sanitation shift at the end of the week).

“Each of our plants is focused on ways to increase product safety and quality while we reduce cost and workplace accidents,” says Polacek. “Grand Island is no different. But I must say that [worker] safety has truly become a part of the culture here – where every employee is involved.”

Echoes Human Resources Manager Dave Peterson, “We want to get every employee involved in safety here at Grand Island. We do that with safety training, safety games, safety committees and safety audits that are conducted by the employees.”

Behind the scenes, Grand Island managers grapple with issues common to many plants nationwide, says Peterson. These include questions of how to staff and retain third-shift employees in a limited, rural setting; how to offset rising operations costs; how to automate additional product handling and processing steps; and how to speed up product changeovers.

But it’s in the area of employee safety that Grand Island – a 46-year-old operation once known as Delicious Foods – makes its claim to fame. Since its 1997 purchase by McCain, the plant has helped the company’s operations group develop an extensive, nine-point “Key Elements of Safety” (KES) program. Included are steps detailing every facet of employee safety from the perspective of management involvement and support, employee involvement, safe policies and procedures, safe practices (standard operating procedures), planning for safe conditions (inspections), employee training, behavior observation, failure analysis and feedback, and performance measurement and tracking.

Polacek and Peterson say Grand Island is now helping McCain take the next proactive step with a Safety Performance Index (SPI) of “leading” indicators. While it incorporates all activities within the nine-point KES program, McCain’s new SPI also measures safety-related improvements, behavior observation reports and safety recognition efforts.

Meanwhile, to Polacek’s earlier point, Grand Island excels at engaging all of its employees. For the past 15 years, the operation has had its workers attend a 15-minute pre-shift meeting where officials can convey safety information, talk about line and product quality issues and even lead employees in some stretching exercises (see “Safety: Walking the walk,” below.)

Sure, McCain essentially is losing 45 minutes production across three shifts. Nevertheless, officials are convinced of the larger benefit.

“Safety has to be in front of all employees every day and by using the 15 minute start-up meeting we can accomplish this,” Peterson says.

Meanwhile, plant officials say they’re working on as many as 250 different safety improvement ideas submitted by hourly workers.

John Steddick is McCain Foods corporate senior director of employee relations.

“The senior leadership team at McCain is committed to our becoming a world-class safety organization,” he says. “That’s been discussed by Dale Morrison, our global chief executive officer, and reinforced by Frank van Schaayk, our U.S. chief executive. Today, safety is the first thing addressed on every business agenda – globally. Again, our commitment is to become world class, which we’re defining with a TIR of 1 or less.

“There’s no doubt about our commitment to safety and you can see that at Grand Island,” he continues. “Every plant of ours has a safety team. Yet, when it comes to a model of employee engagement, I’m looking at Grand Island because their pre-shift meetings get important information down the entire hourly workforce – not just key operators, line leads or committee members. They’ve truly made it a part of their culture.” 

At a Glance: McCain Grand Island


Plant Manager: Dan Theriault
Employees: 410
Products: Approximately 150 SKUs, including: onion rings (formed, battered par-fried, flour or battered, raw breaded, IQF diced) potatoes (skin-on battered russet, sweet), French toast, battered mozzarella cheese sticks, brownies, hushpuppies, battered fruit, vegetables. Items made to Kosher O-U and Triangle certification, as well as Halal certification.
Markets: Grand Island processes and ships products to national account and distributor-served foodservice operators, private label retail.

Plant: 165,000 sq. ft.
Production lines: 9
Cold Storage: 74,000 sq. ft. (attached)

Total quality: Gold-level audit certification from American Institute of Baking. The program covers GMP audit qualification, HACCP validation and a quality systems evaluation
Food safety & sanitation: Gold-level audit certification from Silliker Inc.

Stick with what works!
A step-by-step look at how McCain processes breaded cheese stick appetizers.

Preparation: About every other week, a Nebraska supplier ships pre-cut frozen mozzarella sticks in lined cardboard totes to the Grand Island plant. Just hours after receiving and checking in the product, McCain sends it straight over to the production line. Here, workers transfer large totes over to an automatic lift, which raises and subsequently dumps the cheese sticks onto a vibratory conveyor.

Processing: The vibratory conveyor helps sort and space the cheese sticks en route to a multi-pass batter-breading line. Quickly afterward, cheese sticks travel through a tunnel fryer, which cooks them and establishes the external texture and color. Then, they travel into a spiral IQF freezer.

Packaging: Cheese sticks exit the freezer and travel by incline conveyor to a scaling deck. Here, a multi-head unit collects and distributes product to a series of hoppers that catch and then drop a specified volume of product into a vertical form-fill-seal bagging machine. Completed clear bags (bound for foodservice use) drop onto a conveyor and travel to a case filling line. En route, they will travel past a weigher, metal detector and date coder.

Safety: Walking the walk
McCain Foods isn’t one just to talk about safety. Rather, when it comes to this topic, the company actually puts its money where its mouth is.

For example, whereas any typical plant shift begins when workers set foot on the production room floor, McCain pays to have its employees first attend a pre-shift meeting. In Grand Island, this time allows Training Coordinator Marvin Polacek to emphasize various points about safety and also lead employees in stretching exercises.

Here’s a quick look at how McCain Grand Island ran its afternoon pre-shift employee meeting one day in late October.

Walk in: It’s 3 p.m. when employees file into a training room in the Grand Island plant basement. As they walk in, each person picks up a fill-in-the-blank safety questionnaire. The room accommodates about 120 people who find seats on long, locker room-style benches.

Teaching time: Polacek talks for about 25 minutes about safety clothing and accessories. In particular, he’ll focus (this day) on various types of work gloves necessary for everything from slicing onions to cleaning oil fryers. It’s evident (to visitors) that Polacek’s talk provides answers to the safety questionnaire. While Polacek speaks, workers occasionally glance down and fill out key points. They will later sign and turn in these sheets as they leave.

A seasonal surprise: Polacek dismisses the employees, who just start to stand when a costumed, screaming “Jekyll-and-Hyde” character walks in. With wild hair (a wig) and a (fake) blood-stained white work coat, the mad doctor (actually, Sanitation Supervisor Lynnette Marshall) summarizes key safety discussion points. During her talk, the mad doctor cites examples with other workers (in costumes). Some – including one mummified employee – are in front of the audience. Others demonstrate bad safety form behind a silhouette curtain.

Time to stretch: After the mad doctor stomps out of the room, Polacek stands in front and leads employees through five minutes of stretching to loosen up their hands, legs, backs, necks and shoulders. Afterward, it’s time for employees to head out to the plant floor.