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Putting health & safety back on the menu

17 August 2019

A series of food safety breaches has seen an increased focus on the role of risk management and the importance of ensuring full consistency through the supply chain. Emma Cartwright examines the role of dutyholders and what good food safety really looks like.

It would be difficult not to notice the influx of food health and safety breaches to hit the headlines in recent months as part of the Health & Safety Executive (HSEs) ongoing crack down on the sector. It is not just about food hygiene but the health and safety of employees too. Take, for example, the food processing company which was penalised a huge £1.4m payment after a worker suffered serious crush injuries due to guarding inadequacies, or the food firm which was charged over £1.8m after two workers were injured in a fall owing to poor control measures. 

More than ever consumers – particularly millennials – will closely consider a company’s ethical values which includes the treatment of their staff. Thus looking beyond the financial blow, the ensuing negative publicity of a health & safety breach can be incredibly damaging for a businesses’ reputation. 

Having a clear and robust risk management plan in place plays a large part in preventing such risks from developing in the first place, so why are breaches like this still happening?

The red tape maze
A key issue lies in the sheer vastness of the sector. The food and beverage industry comprises of around 30 different sectors including bakeries, meat and poultry processing, drink manufacture, dairy processing, fish processing, chilled food production, vegetable processing and grain milling/animal feeds. Then within each of these are a complex collection of other business disciplines; wholesale and distribution, food outlets, supermarkets, caterers, grocers, restaurants, takeaways and more.  

This can make regulation, and the task of adhering to it, a minefield. In addition to core legislation such as the Food Safety Act 1990 and the Food Safety and Hygiene (England) Regulations 2013, there is also separate legislative areas such as workplace safety, use of machinery, food information and more.

Who’s responsible?
Adding to the complexity, much health & safety legislation and advice focuses on the appointed ‘dutyholder’ being responsible for things being done right. According to the HSE this is the named responsible person whose role is to ensure any potential health and safety risk is assessed, and that procedures are put in place to reduce the risk as is ‘reasonably practicable’.

However, the dutyholder role can vary massively dependent on the scale of the organisation. Many smaller businesses may appoint the business owner or manager as the statutory dutyholder, and in taking up only a small part of their overall role they may not have the resource to be fully acquainted with the responsibility the role entails. 

In other larger food corporations dutyholders are often designated at almost every level of the hierarchy, from the branch manager responsible for the day-to-day operations, to the health and safety director in charge of managing the risk systems on a national front. However, this approach can make businesses vulnerable because when a breach inevitably occurs, the real experts can often be far placed from the scene.  

Consequently, it can be difficult for food businesses to co-ordinate a health and safety approach that encompasses the whole organisation, which in turn significantly increases the potential for accidents to happen. 

Added to the equation is the growing number of experienced and skilled compliance professionals leaving the industry, which like many other sectors, has left health and safety facing an escalating skills gap. The average age of a dutyholder has dropped significantly in recent years as organisations replace seasoned specialists with graduates, and as we all know, real world experience coupled with training is essential to the role.

Confusion over what exactly constitutes ‘reasonably practicable’ means many companies also lack clarity on the level of experience required to be a dutyholder.
In more technical areas of food, such as manufacturing and production, the process of health and safety compliance is inherently more complex, requiring layers of testing, inspection and certification. 

For example, when it comes to the use of food processing and new machinery placed on the market businesses must adhere to stringent requirements in relation to safety by design, conformity marking and assets must be designed in such a way as to avoid risk of infection, sickness or contagion. When you consider that a single mistake or misstep in this process could cost a brand millions of pounds to fix as well as increasing the risk of an accident, essentially, this leaves no room for error.

Best practice
The increased scrutiny that any incident inevitably brings, means a greater enforcement of specific health and safety standards. This includes a greater onus on following best practice guidance like the Fire Safety Order 2005, PSSR and DSEAR. 

In light of this, dutyholders would be wise to up their due diligence – making it a compelling time for organisations to review their current risk systems. As we have seen, given the serious ramifications of a health and safety breach, the added piece of mind this can bring is priceless – and with more businesses operating a ‘Scores on the Doors’ approach to food health and safety, it is likely that early adopters of absolute best practice will stay one step ahead.

For many firms, this starts with calling in experts, such as Bureau Veritas which has experience working across a range of food and beverage sectors and specialises in creating centralised risk management systems that reduce the likelihood of health and safety failures and which also offers training to dutyholders.

Emma Cartwright is food sector lead at Bureau Veritas.

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