OHS Canada Magazine

Crackproof: Inside Burnbrae Farms’ journey to a safety milestone

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May 23, 2023
By Todd Humber

Health & Safety Burnbrae Farms editor pick Profile

The team at Burnbrae Farms. From left: Li Song Wang, health and safety/food supervisor; Marco Trani, senior maintenance; Basem Asihk, health and safety intern; Kelly Farwell, shipping/receiving; Andy Woods, plant manager; and Sam Altobello, national director, environmental, health and safety. Photo: Todd Humber/OHS Canada

A worker at Burnbrae Farms’ grading facility in Mississauga, Ont., was regularly sprinting across a busy road at the end of her shift at 3:30 p.m. to catch a bus.

“You can imagine the amount of traffic out here,” said Andy Woods, plant manager, motioning to the four-lane thoroughfare in front of the plant.

Her co-workers pleaded with her to stop, but she wasn’t listening. They approached Woods to see if he could intervene. Not wanting to single her out, he brought the issue up at an all-employee meeting.

“We said, listen, nobody can be doing this,” said Woods. “What we always tell them is that the way you come in is the way we want you to go home.”

“We don’t need anyone getting hurt — they’re only eggs. We can fix the eggs, but we can’t fix you.”


Burnbrae Farms recently invited OHS Canada into its grading facility on Tomken Road to crack open its secret to workplace safety. That culture, which was strong enough to encourage staff to speak up about dangerous behaviour happening after hours and outside the workplace, was the first sign the company is on the right track.

The sign inside the Burnbrae Farms facility in Mississauga, Ont.

The second sign was a literal one, a glowing green beacon on the wall proclaiming — as of April 19, 2023 — that “We have proudly worked 2,718 days without a loss time accident.” That’s nearly seven-and-a-half years without an incident.

It’s no small feat for the bustling 50,000-square-foot plant which has a carefully choreographed flow of workers, machinery and forklifts. And that’s before you get outside into the yard with a constant stream of trucks and trailers making deliveries and carting off the final product from the loading docks.

“The joke is that chickens don’t stop laying eggs,” said Woods. “In some industries, you can turn off the materials that are coming in or slow them down. We can’t do that. We have to be continually running.”

About 120 workers are employed at the facility, a union shop represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), that processes more than 450 million eggs annually.

Culture of engagement

Sam Altobello, national director, environmental, health and safety at Burnbrae Farms — which has about 1,600 workers across Canada — said the safety culture can be summed up in one word: Engagement.

“That’s full engagement by management and the employees. And what I mean about engagement is they’re proactive when it comes to health and safety. They’re not reactive,” he said.
And not only do staff have “no problems” bringing issues forward, but they often come armed with solutions as well, he said. While it’s cliché, he credits the success to a top-down approach to safety — with a bit of a twist. That’s because many of the people in leadership roles have been with the company a long time and understand the jobs.

“A lot of the people in leadership roles here have grown with the company. They’ve all started on the floor,” he said. “They’ve kind of come up the ranks and they take employee health and safety to heart.”

New hires and orientation

Woods is a prime example of that — he started with Burnbrae at the age of 17 and has been with the company for 28 years. He knows every nook and cranny of the plant he manages and has a simple message for every new hire: “Don’t touch anything.”

“You’re going to be trained, but don’t touch anything unless you know what you’re doing,” he said. “Until you’re trained on it, don’t touch it.”

One of the biggest issues with new hires is that their mind is often focused on doing the job well and making a good impression with their new boss — and not necessarily on safety.

The message needs to come through, loud and clear, that it’s OK to take the time and do the job safely, he said.

“Whenever there’s an accident, it’s normally because someone is cutting corners. Like, ‘I was trying to rush through the work,’” said Woods.

“We’ll use those insights and say, so what if it takes an extra five minutes to get the work done? You’re going to get it done safely, right? In all honesty, it’s difficult to slow people down. We’ve had employees that we’ve had to take in and almost reprimand because they just won’t slow down.”

Altobello, who has been in his role at Burnbrae for two years, saw an opportunity to improve how orientation was being conducted.

“Each plant was doing it differently, so we looked at a program that could be standardized.”

Biggest risk areas

The risks on the shop floor at Burnbrae are similar to other manufacturing facilities, said Altobello. High on his agenda are repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) and ergonomics.

“Now we’re looking at how do we implement new equipment, new automation, to mitigate a lot of these risks?”

For example, the company is installing a spin dryer that will eliminate a repetitious bending motion for workers. Forklifts are another high-risk area, so it ramped up its training program and implemented infraction policies for workers operating equipment unsafely.

Learning from other sites

Burnbrae has multiple locations doing the same work, which means other facilities are using similar processes and equipment.

“The logic is pretty simple. If somebody gets hurt at another grading station or breaking station, there’s a good chance to get hurt at this one,” said Woods.

When that happens, they send out safety alerts to staff and ensure everyone learns from the incident.

And while nobody wants to be the one to knock the loss-time accident number down to zero, there is no fear about reporting injuries or flagging concerns, said Woods.

“I’m on the floor, but I’m not on the floor all the time,” he said. “They live on the floor. So if there’s anything out there, if anything is unsafe, we’ll get it fixed for them.”


Safety on the docks

Woods called the loading docks a “scary” place for safety risks.

“Anyone who’s worked around docks and trailers know some of the horror stories that have happened,” he said.
Burnbrae upped its safety protocols around the docks, installing traffic lights and a Glad Hand Lock Station to prevent trailers from being driven away accidentally.

“That’s just to make sure that when someone’s backed in our docks, they’re not accidentally pulling out because we’ve all seen what happens — there’s forklifts turned over and all kinds of bad stuff,” he said.

Airing dirty laundry

And while he’s proud of the green number on the sign, he doesn’t talk about it much.

“Thank goodness it’s counting up and not down, so we’re going in the right direction, but we don’t chat about that number a lot,” he said. “That’s because, to us, it’s just a representation of the hard work that we put in.”

He noted that, more than seven years ago, the counter made it to the four-and-a-half year mark with no injuries — and then an incident happened.

“That was bad because the employee that got hurt, he got hurt really bad,” said Woods. “It was one of those things we looked at and said, ‘How did we let this happen?’ Like, we observed this, but we didn’t stop it. We don’t know why we didn’t stop it.”

In the past, issues might be flagged during a health and safety walkaround, and they would get documented and discussed later in the boardroom. Now, the attitude has changed — issues are dealt with immediately, he said.

“There’s no tolerance for anything unsafe in the plant. If you see it, fix it right away.”

Altobello said employers and leaders can’t be afraid to “air out your dirty laundry.”

“You have to come forward and you have to raise the concerns that employees are seeing — whether it’s a risk, whether it’s a hazard… employees need to feel comfortable that they can approach anyone on the team in the plant leadership and raise concerns,” he said.

The second piece to that puzzle is ensuring information is acted upon.

“It’s really important that when the employees raise a concern, we deal with the concern and we followup with that employee,” said Altobello. “When people see action, they realize that the company is serious about health and safety.”

The view from the top: Senior leadership and safety

The word “family” is tossed around a lot at Burnbrae Farms. You hear it from nearly every employee, and many credit the culture the business has created around family as a reason for its success in keeping workers safe.

“We’re a family business, and it’s my family that owns Burnbrae,” said Margaret Hudson, president and CEO, Burnbrae Farms. “You never want to think that anybody comes to work and leaves having an injury that could have been preventable with better safety standards.”

She pointed out that the company’s quarterly town hall “literally starts with our safety moment and our people moment.”

Instilling a sense of family among the workforce is important to her, because “people in families don’t feel afraid to speak up.”

She regularly gets notes, letters and emails from workers — about safety and other issues — and she encourages that communication and open culture.

Trevor Chang, Burnbrae’s vice-president of operations, said the company purposely creates both an “occasion and opportunity” for workers to talk safety. He oversees the OHS portfolio, and Sam Altobello reports directly to him.

“We always start our meetings with health and safety, and just making sure that we’re creating the occasion for people to talk about it,” he said. “It’s not something that’s just rushed through.”

But the C-suite leadership at Burnbrae kept passing the credit for the success of programs back to Altobello and the front-line leaders on the floor.

Murray McLean, director of national grading operations, said Andy Woods — the plant manager at the grading facility in Mississauga, Ont. — has the respect of employees and is open to talk to anyone.

“Being on the floor gives people the opportunity to reach out to them,” he said.

“If they don’t see you, they don’t know you and they don’t feel you’re approachable. That goes a long way, and it’s not easy.”

Chang said Altobello goes above and beyond to really “get into the weeds” at the different sites. The internal safety audits he has been working on have been revealing. The first year of the audit revealed some “low-hanging fruit” that was pretty simple to address and improve.

“Now we’re into year three of continuing to do these all over the network, and we’re starting to get into things we wouldn’t have ever dreamed about tackling,” said Chang. “But we’re getting to that level of sophistication where we can have these conversations. It’s an evolution.”

Burnbrae would not be where it is today on the safety front without Altobello’s work, which speaks to the importance of having a qualified safety professional on the payroll.

“The things that Sam has done over the last few years, it’s been pivotal,” he said. “We’ve always invested in health and safety but having the right person focus on some key things is critically important. You really see it in your results and engagement.”

McLean said it’s no different than having a specialist in any other area.

“We were all good at grading eggs and doing lots of things under the roof,” he said. “But we don’t know everything about everything. And that’s where the specialists, whether it’s food safety or health and safety, lead us in the right direction.”

That expertise also helps the company with its long term-vision in deciding where to invest and what equipment to purchase.

“If we’re going to be investing in new equipment, how does that impact our operators and the people who use that equipment? Whether it be from an ergonomic standpoint or guarding. We’re putting health and safety on the table when we’re making some of these larger decisions.”

From Hudson’s seat, she said there is a lot to think about for any organization when it comes to safety.

“I think it’s important that your people leading the safety function are there working with your teams,” she said. “That they’re there to support and guide and convince.”

That’s more effective than trying to simply police workers, though sometimes you need to trade the carrot in for the stick, she said.

“If you can really work with the teams, your impact are going to be bigger than if you’re just running around telling them what you’re doing wrong,” she said. “Because we’ve had a little bit of both, and we’ve definitely found the style of support is more impactful than the style of police.”

The view from the floor: ’10 fingers and 10 toes’

Marco Trani, who runs maintenance at the Mississauga, Ont., plant, has been with the company for almost 27 years.

He has a simple philosophy when it comes to workplace safety: “I want to go home with 10 fingers and 10 toes, right?”

The safety success at Burnbrae is largely because management is supportive and has a true open-door policy, he said.

“They’re very approachable, even if it’s the smallest safety issue,” he said. “All the management, from Andy (plant manger) all the way up to Margaret (CEO). You can approach them and talk to them without feeling nervous or feeling like a lesser person. They don’t see it that way.”

Trani said every worker has a role to play in safety, even if they don’t have something OHS-related in their title. He’s currently training a maintenance worker, and he told the story about asking him to cut a piece of stainless steel. The worker retrieved a grinder with a cutting disc — but didn’t grab any PPE.

“I’m like, ‘Where’s your safety? You’re not going to do it until you have a face shield on because if a chunk of that stainless steel comes off and hits you in the eye, it’s gonna hurt,’” he said.

Spending a few minutes to retrieve the right PPE might slow the worker down, but not nearly as much as having to go to the hospital, said Trani.

Ensuring employees feel comfortable speaking up is another way to ensure the workplace remains safe. For example, he said a piece of equipment the workers handling the eggs use might have a sharp edge. It’s an easy fix to file it down and make it smooth, but unless the workers doing the job say something he won’t know the problem exists.

Kelon Dabreo, a production worker who has been with Burnbrae Farms for nine years, said he feels completely safe working at the company.

“This is a safety-first company, and they make sure we get proper training,” he said.

Workers also care about each other and watch out for one another on the plant floor.

“When we’re driving the power cart, we treat every intersection like a stop sign,” he said. “We stop, we look before we drive. We’re most focused on our safety, and everything else comes after.”


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