According to the most recent comprehensive economic census, more than 36,000 food and beverage processing plants in the United States employ more than 1.7 million people.
Safety in these sectors is paramount to protect workers and ensure the food they produce is safe to consume. Of the 3 million non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2016, almost 20,000 happened in the food manufacturing industry.
What are the most common food processing plant hazards, and how can we prevent them in the future?
Sanitation is one of the most important parts of food manufacturing and processing. Adhering to the FDA’s rules and guidelines is essential to protect employees and ensure food is safe to consume once it leaves the facility.
However, sanitation practices can create risks. Electronics are becoming an increasingly common tool in the food industry, but unless they’re properly sealed or designed with a high degree of water resistance, spraying them down with water or solutions can create an electrical shock hazard.
Many of the cleaning chemicals necessary for workplace sanitation are hazardous or even caustic, requiring specialized equipment while in use. Providing comprehensive training and properly fitted personal protective equipment (PPE) can ensure that employees who come into contact with these chemicals are protected.
Vertical warehouse and manufacturing layouts are gaining popularity, allowing companies to make the most of otherwise limited floor space. It might be good for efficiency, but spreading up instead of out creates a new safety hazard. Falls from height are among the most common cause of workplace fatalities, to the point that it is included in OSHA’s Fatal Four. Working at any height greater than ground level can create the risk of a fall, which increases the need for additional safety measures.
OSHA’s fall prevention rules include requirements such as ensuring there are guardrails and toe-boards around the sides of any open or elevated platform. These safety measures are also required for platforms where workers could fall into dangerous equipment, regardless of the height. Additional fall protection may be necessary for areas where guardrails or toe-boards aren’t an option.
Slips and Falls
Slips and falls are hazardous in any manufacturing setting, but food processing plants present a unique risk. Surfaces are constantly exposed to water and grease, blood and other slippery substances that can increase the chances of accidents resulting in workplace injuries.
Thankfully, some easy solutions can prevent slips and falls in food processing plants. Employees should be required to wear closed-toed non slip shoes to reduce their chance of falling. Keeping the floor clean and dry is the best option. However, when that isn’t possible because of the details of the manufacturing process, non slip mats can help fill in some of the gaps and prevent wet floors from creating a workplace hazard.
Automation in warehouses and manufacturing facilities helps improve efficiency and product quality, but advanced equipment can create its own problems and hazards in the workplace. Working with and around robotics and automated systems requires special attention to worker safety. These devices can’t tell the difference between a human hand and the chicken they’re sectioning for sale, which could result in serious on-the-job injuries.
Suppose a worker is injured on the production line. In that case, the line must be shut down for sterilization to prevent any contamination that might make the food unsafe. This results in lost productivity and income. Even worse, it can make employees feel like the company is not looking out for their best interests. Situations like these should be avoided at all costs.
Comprehensive training is essential for any new automated systems to ensure no one gets their hands caught in the metaphorical cookie jar. Employees should also be fluent in lockout and tag-out procedures if equipment needs to be taken offline for repairs. Electrocutions are also part of OSHA’s Fatal Four, so avoiding situations that could put employees at risk of encountering an electrical hazard is essential.
The chemicals needed for commercial sterilization can be incredibly dangerous. Chlorine dioxide is often used to sterilize enclosed spaces. It’s an effective disinfectant but one that can be fatal if inhaled in any significant quantity. Some safer options are beginning to emerge, such as disinfecting with aerate ozonated water, which acts as an oxidizer. However, they haven’t become standard practice in the food processing industry.
The use of fitted and effective PPE is essential to protect food processing workers from the harsh chemicals that are often part of everyday operations. Each person’s PPE should fit them as close to perfect as possible. Each piece should be tested regularly before use to ensure it’s doing its job. Anything that doesn’t work optimally should be repaired or replaced.
Plants may also wish to consider adopting robots or drones for cleaning and sterilization. They can complete the same tasks more efficiently than human workers and do not experience the same risk if they encounter dangerous or caustic chemicals.
Existing safeguards are designed to prevent workplace injuries or fatalities, but sometimes they may interfere with a worker’s ability to complete their tasks. Removable safety measures can help solve this problem, but this is not always appropriate. Situations where removing them would put employees at risk of encountering blades or moving parts that could cause serious harm should be avoided.
Removing safeguards should never be the first option. Work with your team to help them create operational procedures that optimize efficiency without taking down existing safety measures or making the workplace less safe.
Keeping the Food Processing Industry Safe
Food processing facilities will become more important than ever as the population continues to grow. These are some of the most common hazards in the food processing industry, but this list isn’t exhaustive. Many things can make the operation of one of these plants hazardous to human health. The key is to create a company that actively works to keep its employees safe through comprehensive training, adopting new technologies, and designing best practices that meet or exceed OSHA requirements.