When you focus on safety, says Yannick Lavoie, you’ll also find efficiencies.
Yannick Lavoie knows how profoundly life can change in just a single moment.
“My father had a small meat-processing business and one day when I was three and a half, I went to say hi to my father,” says Lavoie. “I had a fall and I landed on the meat grinder and I lost my arm.”
The 39-year-old has gone on to run his own forestry operation and farm, and today is deputy farm manager at Bovibec, one of Québec’s largest cattle feedlots. Not surprisingly, the well-being of his eight employees is always the top priority, but don’t tell him safety is just a cost of doing business. It’s the opposite, he says.
“People sometimes only see the money they have to spend on training or making the workplace safer,” he says. “They really have to understand that the money you put into that will give you a return.”
The feedlot at Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade, about 70 kilometres west of Québec City, has a 4,600-head capacity and in excess of 4,000 cattle at any given time. Risk is ever present.
“The main concern is that cows are unpredictable,” says Lavoie. “You cannot turn the key off on a cow – it’s alive and can always kick you, give you a head shot, or charge at you. So you have to stay alert and be sharp all the time.”
Even routine tasks, such as mixing rations or moving them with a loader, can be hazardous, especially when the weather is bad or people feel the need to rush.
Bovibec had a formal safety plan in place when Lavoie joined the company in the summer of 2012. Safety is talked about on a daily basis and a safety committee meets every three months with a goal to improve the plan. But the key part is attitude – which is founded on a belief that safety and efficiency are two sides of the same coin.
Take, for example, how work is conducted at the handling facilities, which are comprised of a loading chute; a weigh scale; a “squeeze” chute for vaccinating calves and conducting health checks; and a variety of gates and pens to sort and hold the animals.
“When cattle arrive at the chute, everyone has to know what their jobs are,” said Lavoie. “So who is in charge of the panel? Who is doing the vaccinating? Who is doing the release?
“When we work with three guys, we have a specific order of action for who does what at what time. When it is two guys, we have an order of action for that situation.”
Breaking down each step in an operation, such as receiving cattle, not only allows you to look for hazards, but also spot inefficiencies, Lavoie says.
“You might look at something you do at the chute and say, ‘Putting my arm in here could be unsafe.’ Then you realize that if you put the guy in this spot or changed something else, we could not only make it safer but save some steps and make it more efficient. So it’s easier, faster, and safer.”
That ‘break it down’ approach is applied to virtually all tasks at the feedlot, even when safety isn’t an issue.
“There’s one guy who I can give a new job to and then we come back three weeks later and ask him how he does it,” says Lavoie. “And he’ll say, ‘At first, I did this, then this, then that. But then I scrapped this or that thing, and changed how I did this.’ Give him three weeks at something and he’ll always find the best way to do any job.”
The belief that safety and efficiency can go hand in hand guides the safety committee, which is made up of team leaders, each responsible for a specific area, such as the yard, garage, and feed-mixing area. Along with a standard review of what’s happened since the last meeting (including what each team leader has been telling employees about doing their tasks safely), the committee looks to add at least one new item to its list of safety improvements at each meeting.
Sometimes it’s as simple as improving visibility for the loader operator in the feed-mixing area or improving signage. Other times, a piece of equipment might have to be modified or a change made to a building. But it’s always worth the effort, says Lavoie.
“We look for those good tricks, a way for you to work better and stay safe,” he says.
The safety-as-investment philosophy also extends to staff training. In addition to things such as bringing in a vet to talk about cattle’s flight path and how they react to light and movement, there’s an extensive orientation for new staff. New workers are also encouraged to take their time and given a clear objective for each task. For example, someone checking pens for sick calves is told the top priority is to find every animal that’s ill.
“At first, it may take that person four hours, but we say, ‘That’s OK, as long as you find every one. So take your time,’” says Lavoie. “We also know the person will get faster over time and one day will be able to do it in two hours. So why push to be fast at the start? If he misses one sick calf, you are wasting money.”
Instead of giving overly detailed instructions on how to do a job in the most efficient way, workers are also given room to discover what works best for them.
“Of course, we want our employees to be efficient,” he says. “But we don’t push them. Instead, we help them to find their own way to become better.”
Any farm employer who is truly dedicated to making safety the top priority will learn it has additional payoffs – including being able to sleep at night, says Lavoie.
“I know what life is like with only one arm,” he says. “When I see someone doing something dangerous or taking chances, I know these things can have consequences for the rest of your life. So I don’t hesitate to say something to them. I tell them, ‘Be safe so at the end of the day, you can just go home and say hello to your wife.’”