The U.S. dairy industry relies heavily on an immigrant workforce, originating primarily from Latin American countries, with diverse backgrounds and various degrees of dairy work experience. Serious gaps in formal education and dairy knowledge, in addition to working with livestock and specialized heavy equipment and other hazards in the work environment, put dairy workers at risk of work-related injuries and illnesses.
In order to understand how to increase worker productivity and enhance worker health and safety on dairies, we conducted a total of seven focus groups on three large dairies in the Western region of the U.S. Forty-four dairy workers – all Latino(a) – shared their experiences and perceptions regarding current management practices and training needs, along with ideas for improvement.
Below are highlights of our findings that could inform dairy owners and managers as they strive to create a safer and more productive work environment.
Supervisors are the key
Middle managers, or supervisors, can either be perceived as facilitators or obstructionists to productivity and safety, according to dairy workers. If seen as facilitators, they can serve as agents of change and help establish a culture of effective communication, productivity and well-being.
Focus group participants reported positive relationships with their supervisors when they exhibited the following characteristics:
1. Accessibility. Supervisors should be able to provide oversight and assistance to all workers. Participants noted that the lack of consistency in oversight adversely affects workers’ performance and efficiency, especially during the night shifts.
The lack of supervisory presence during the night shifts means in many instances workers don’t have access to the tools and personnel to fix equipment or to address safety hazards. Workers understand that inconsistencies in supervision affect overall dairy productivity.
2. Fairness. Supervisors should treat all workers fairly, regardless of ethnic or cultural background and language skills. Workers perceived unfair treatment regarding pay, benefits and job demands between different cultural groups on the farm. Workers thought more transparency regarding management decisions could help strengthen relationships between management and a diverse group of workers.
3. Knowledge. Supervisors are more likely to earn the trust and respect of workers when they have experience in the area they supervise. Supervisors should understand why procedures are in place and should be well trained in the tasks they expect workers to perform.
4. Good communication. Participants expressed that supervisors could help with communication among areas of the dairy operation, as well as communication between management and workers. They offered several strategies for improving communication:
Hold regular staff meetings
- Participants felt different areas of the dairy work as silos and suggested meetings in which the various areas update each other and find ways to collaborate would be beneficial to the dairy operation.
- Meetings, along with training of new and existing employees, could clarify responsibilities associated with every job on the dairy farm. Many workers expressed a lack of clarity regarding responsibilities and tasks associated with their job assignments. Workers saw this lack of clarity as a factor contributing to conflicts among management areas and among workers.
- Staff meetings should be held regularly to update workers on their performance, share safety and productivity challenges, and encourage workers’ input in overcoming those challenges. Workers would like to feel that their voices are heard in the planning process and in the solution of problems.
- Supervisors must follow through and communicate with workers about work- and safety-related issues. Lack of follow-through was a main complaint of focus group participants. They noted that in many instances, they must remind supervisors that the equipment needs maintenance or repair before supervisors fix the issue.
They also described situations in which a safety hazard was reported and not addressed in a timely manner. Although repairs may take some time, the lack of communication between supervisors and workers gives the impression that their concerns are not being heard and that management is not responsive to their needs.
Say it out loud
- Recognize workers’ performance one-on-one or during meetings. Workers shared with us that they want to do a good job, that they care about the cows and take pride in doing things right. Recognizing them should contribute to greater worker motivation and sends the message that you appreciate their work.
- Many workers perceived middle managers as prioritizing animal well-being over worker’s health and safety. Emphasizing that human well-being is a priority to the operation during staff meetings and day-to-day interactions, as well as addressing health and safety risks on the operation in a timely manner, should help change this perception.
Choose interpreters and translators wisely
- Although language was not perceived as a barrier to effective communication by all workers, efforts to operate in a bilingual fashion were perceived as beneficial.
- Workers believe that staff meetings in which an unbiased interpreter is used could benefit the dairy operation. Workers expressed concern with co-workers serving as interpreters who could withhold or edit information to their personal advantage, causing mistrust and frustration among workers. Supervisors who employ interpreters and translators should choose wisely.
Training is essential to prevent and manage injuries and illnesses
We all know that training is an important part of human resource management for any business, but often we fail to prioritize it on dairy operations. Training interventions vary between dairy operations and are often inconsistent in terms of content and frequency.
Additionally, even when training opportunities are provided, we omit much-needed basic information, as we take for granted workers’ knowledge and the quality of previous livestock work experience. Comprehensive and culturally appropriate training programs, delivered in consistent and effective ways, are much needed.
Focus group participants saw training as a strategy to improve job motivation and would like training interventions to be more frequent and more relevant to their day-to-day jobs. They perceived training as more valuable when it comes from a co-worker or supervisor (than from a video, written materials or outside trainer) and when the whys specific to their tasks are shared with them.
Noteworthy knowledge gaps that training may address
Animal behavior and animal handling
- Dairy workers demonstrated severe gaps in basic knowledge as it relates to animal behavior and animal handling. Often dairy managers assume that employees with previous livestock experience understand how to handle dairy cattle, and for many workers, this is not the case. Focus group participants clearly lacked a basic understanding of how to work with animals in a manner that ensures human and animal health and safety.
- Workers expressed views that accidents cannot be prevented because cattle are unpredictable. This fatalistic view could limit management’s efforts to create a safer work environment. Management should stress the importance – the hows and whys – of preventive behaviors around livestock.
Equipment maintenance and repair
- Workers, who expressed frustration with the lack of availability of supervisors or other personnel to maintain and fix equipment, stressed that if they had basic skills and permissions to properly address equipment issues, even if just as a short-term solution, they could do their job better and in a safer way.
Participants shared that many times, they will try to fix equipment with whatever they have available and by simply guessing. They recognize that this could prove dangerous for people and animals alike.
These findings were first published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health in May 2016. The research was conducted at Colorado State University. Noa Roman-Muniz, DVM, is with the university’s department of animal sciences; Lauren Menger-Ogle, Ph.D., with the department of psychology; Lorann Stallones, Ph.D., with the department of psychology; and John Rosecrance, Ph.D., with the department of environmental health and radiological sciences.