Factory walkouts and social distancing: How can food businesses protect workers from COVID-19?

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

How to protect your workforce in the time of coronavirus / Pic: GettyImages-GemPhotography
How to protect your workforce in the time of coronavirus / Pic: GettyImages-GemPhotography

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The rapid spread of COVID-19 has placed how we interact in the spotlight, with phrases like ‘social distancing’ now established in our common vocabulary. But what does this mean for key workers in the food sector? We take a look at operations best practice in the pandemic.

The British food safety regulator, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), issued guidance for food makers with the aim of keeping workers safe and stemming the person-to-person transmission of novel coronavirus earlier this week.

The FSA said employees working in food processing plants should continue to follow ‘the highest hygiene standards’, including the use of some personal protective equipment and frequent hand washing.

Concerning social distancing, all employers are expected to follow social distancing guidance ‘as far as is reasonably possible’. Where the production environment may make this challenging, employers should consider what measures may be put in place to protect employees, noted the Government.

But Britain and Ireland’s largest union, Unite, has called for more stringent measures from the Government. It believes the two-metre social distancing guideline for food workers on production lines needs to be made mandatory.

Unite’s call to George Eustice, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, comes after last week’s walkout by 1,000 workers at the Seagoe Moy Park site in Portadown over concerns about basic health and safety protections for the workforce.

“The lack of the mandatory imposition of the two-metre rule by government is a problem currently nationwide,”​ warned Unite national officer for the food industry Bev Clarkson.

“I have been in contact with all the meat suppliers where we have union recognition. Some of the employers are introducing social distancing wherever possible, however they are saying that because the government has not stated that it is mandatory within the sector then they are not implementing it on production lines. We have strenuously put it to them that if they do not implement it on production lines then the virus could spread rapidly throughout the factories.”

Clarkson said that a number of measures to make social distancing practically possible on the production line have been proposed. These include slowing the lines down, rotating personnel and putting up perplex screens.

Slowing down production is problematic for food makers who are already struggling to keep pace with surging demand.

Looking specifically at meat production as an example, Clarkson noted: “I have been informed that production is up by at least 40% on all meat poultry sites because of the increase in demand, however, I pointed out that if the virus spreads in the factories then they won’t have enough staff to continue the production.”

Sam Smith of food safety and equipment specialists Klipspringer agrees that implementing social distancing on the factory floor is particularly challenging for food makers grappling with increased demand.

“Social distancing is made more challenging currently for many food businesses due to the high levels of demand placed upon them, particularly as a result of consumers panic-buying goods. This has of course especially been seen with producers of staple foods, ready meals and non-perishable products.

“This means that cutting back staff numbers isn’t an option, and time is scarce as full attention is given to securing ingredient supply, getting the goods made and then dispatched out of the door. Higher demand means that increased volumes of operatives are required to work on production lines (which are typically close together within food manufacturing facilities), and hence maintaining safe working distances is harder to achieve,”​ he told FoodNavigator.

And while the food sector as a whole is gradually moving towards greater levels of automation, Smith noted that it nevertheless remains reliant on a human workforce. “Some forms of manufacturing within the food sector are also inherently manual and rely heavily on people carrying out the tasks. Although this is changing over time with the further introduction of technology and automatic processing, factories that are entirely dependent on a human workforce have the greatest challenge on hand currently when it comes to social distancing.”

So, what is best practice on the factory floor?

Prepare preventative measures and rapid response

The nature of food production means that factories should already comply to excellent hygiene standards, including clear hand-washing procedures, appropriate PPE and regular cleaning of work surfaces, machinery and equipment. This has put the industry ahead of the ‘wider hygiene game’ – but it does not protect the workforce from the spread of COVID-19.

Smith elaborates: “The nature of how coronavirus spreads with airborne droplets requires going above-and-beyond normal safety and hygiene practices. This includes the introduction of masks and physical segregation barriers between workers – items that would not necessarily be expected prior to this crisis.”

Likewise, advice from industry association Food and Consumer Products of Canada (FCPC) stresses the need to protect the health of workers and safety of the plant in order to maintain production. The organisation suggests that food and beverage companies need to adopt ‘preventative measures’ and be prepared for a ‘rapid response’. Measures include physical distancing onsite, scheduling shifts and breaks to limit overlap, limit equipment sharing and adding break and lunch rooms to facilitate physical distancing.

“Install hand sanitiser dispensers (no touch) in high-traffic areas. Take simple steps to decrease high-touch areas, for example by leaving doors open where possible to avoid frequent touching of handles. Increase attention to judiciously cleaning high-touch surfaces and higher-risk equipment with approveddisinfectants,​” FCPC advised.

Unfortunately, obtaining supplies to safeguard worker health can be easier said than done. “Just like other industries, many food organisations are struggling to secure supplies of masks and basic PPE for operatives due to unprecedented demand levels elsewhere,"​ Smith observed. 

The cost and time associated with making necessary changes can also act as a barrier, Smith noted. “Anybody who is even vaguely familiar with food production facilities knows the vast amount of cost, time and engineering involved in a production line change or a factory floor re-design – let alone when demand is higher than normal.

“That said, one of the most effective and truly cost-effective actions that can be taken is by educating the workforce and making every individual responsible to personally fight coronavirus through maintained social distancing.”

Could COVID-19 hit food supplies?

Governments and the food industry have been at pains to reassure consumers that the food supply is secure. However, the rising number of coronavirus cases could result in labour shortages that hit production.

“Whilst both manufacturers and politicians are reassuring consumers that food supplies ‘won’t run out’, the rising number of coronavirus cases in the UK does suggest that staffing issues could become a problem, and this would obviously go on to jeopardise the production levels that manufacturers are able to sustain,”​ Smith revealed.

“This is also implicated by critical PPE items becoming harder to access, with some companies telling me that they will have to stop production if further masks can’t be obtained.

“I guess all of us are yet to find out just how far-reaching this situation turns out to be, and the implications it will have on production levels and consequent food supplies.”

More tips and ideas on practical social distancing methods are shared in Klipspringer’s blog​.

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