Playing It Safe
By Kathie Canning
For employees at Sara Lee’s Traverse City, Mich., plant, worker safety is more than just an initiative.

When the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) honored Sara Lee Food and Beverage’s Traverse City, Mich., frozen pie plant earlier this year with its CET Platinum Award, MIOSHA Director Doug Kalinowski called the facility’s record — nearly eight years and nine million hours without a lost time accident — an “astounding success.” For the plant’s 606 employees, the award was concrete evidence that the facility’s “safety culture” — first created more than 16 years ago — had the right stuff.
“Our initial efforts at improving safety began in 1989 on a limited basis with a supervisor incentive program,” notes Suzi Anderton, environmental, health and safety manager. “A few years later, we recognized that a safety culture was dependent on everyone in the plant, not just supervisors.”
So the Traverse City facility created an ergonomics task force in 1991, incorporating employees from the plant. The formation of safety committees on all three work shifts followed.
“A safety culture began to emerge,” Anderton says. “A key feature of a successful safety culture is the willingness to listen and show respect for others. Respect and communication are what helped us successfully introduce the DuPont Safety Training Observation Program.”
In 1995, says Anderton, the plant conducted an internal survey to gauge its “safety culture and attitude.” The survey helped facility management become much more disciplined in incident and near-miss investigations. Two years later, the facility established an employee safety incentive program.
“The results have been significant,” Anderton stresses. “In 1997, the state of Michigan awarded the plant their Bronze Award for safety improvement and ergonomic innovation. We have the dual benefits of increased employee morale, pride and engagement in the business, along with reduced worker compensation costs. We have an employee turnover rate of less than 5%.”
The 310,000-sq.-ft. Traverse City facility, which makes frozen pies, cheesecakes and parfait cups for retail and foodservice customers, also is a standout in terms of productivity and quality. The plant was constructed in 1963 to produce frozen pies under the Chef Pierre brand name — the number one branded pie in foodservice. Sara Lee purchased the Chef Pierre brand — and plant — in 1978 and also began producing Sara Lee branded retail products at the facility. Today, the plant boasts several highly automated pie lines, but its dedicated employees — who average 20 years of service — drive productivity and quality improvements.
“Our plant culture is characterized by a ‘can-do’ attitude and a belief in continuous improvement and quality,” says Randy Tucker, plant general manager. “We have tried to nurture this culture through employee involvement in safety committees, plant service awards, employee training and recognition of significant milestones. Individually our employees have always been positively involved with improving our processes. With the introduction of lean manufacturing to the plant over the last year, we have built on this foundation so that collectively we are able to make better decisions.”
On the food safety and quality side, the plant recently received a Superior rating from the American Institute of Baking (AIB), which mark five straight years of improved scoring on AIB’s audit, Tucker says.
All plant achievements, from worker and food safety to productivity to community relations efforts, continue to reinforce the operating philosophy of the larger Sara Lee Corp. According to Tucker, that philosophy includes a vision “to be the first choice of consumers and customers by bringing together innovative ideas, continuous process improvement and people who make things happen.”