When Helmut Janz sees a problem, the self-professed tinkerer likes to solve it.
So when he found himself and other employees at a Maple Leaf hog barn in Zhoda suffering from sore wrists and carpal tunnel syndrome after the process of castrating, tail notching, ear tattooing and oral drenching piglets, he decided there had to be a better way — one that took the pressure off employees’ hands, wrists and arms.
“I’ve had carpal tunnel in both my hands and I had two employees come to me — both on the same day — who were getting booked into surgery for carpal tunnel as well. And one of the main causes of carpal tunnel in the barn is from processing pigs,” Janz said. “You have to squeeze these piglets hard enough so that you don’t drop them… and they can get pretty big.”
So in December 2012, the supervisory specialist headed into his garage to see what he could come up with. The result was a prototype of what he calls the “piglet processing arm.”
“It is a cradle with a cushion on it for the pigs to sit in,” he said. “They’re pretty comfortable in it actually, if you hold them in your hands they’re kind of being tossed back and forth and upside down and everything, with this they’re in a nice stable position.”
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The piglet is held in place with a Velcro strap and universal joints like those used on power takeoffs allow the arm to move. The device is then attached to the processing cart and can be adjusted for the height of the employee.
The first processing arm was a hit, said Janz, adding it only needed a few tweaks to fine tune it. Now the device is mandatory in all Maple Leaf barns and is used on approximately 1.5 million piglets each year.
“We kind of played around with it in the barn here for two or three months, then we tried it in another barn, then all of a sudden it started to catch on,” he said. “It takes a week or two for people to get used to it, but once they’re used to it, they won’t go back.”
Steve Davies, Janz’s boss and manager of multiplication at the barn, encouraged his inventive efforts, giving him some cash to get the project going.
But he said most employees don’t spend their off time inventing new equipment for their barns.
“It’s very unusual,” he said.
Neil Booth, Maple Leaf’s director of manufacturing agreed.
“It’s not something that we’d usually expect, but Helmut is a guy with a very inquiring, curious mind and he has quite a deep passion for health and safety, as well as the well-being of the people who work with him,” he said. “We’ve been very pleased with what he’s done.”
The new processing arm has also improved efficiency when it comes to castrating, tail notching, ear tattooing and oral drenching.
“The same processing crew can process more litters now without needing to rotate positions and do something else for a break on those wrists, because it’s so much easier on them,” Booth said.
Janz’s work earned him the Aherne Prize for Innovative Pork Production at the Banff Pork Seminar earlier this year, but he said the real reward is seeing how it affects his fellow employees.
“If people can go home in the same condition that they came in, that’s what I want. I suffered from carpal tunnel, it wakes you up at night, so if people don’t have to go through that, for me, that’s a huge success,” he said.
Janz added that Maple Leaf hasn’t patented the device, and he would like to see barn workers everywhere use it to reduce injuries.