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Adapting to a new normal on the production floor

22 June 2020

In light of the current Covid-19 pandemic, Sue Springett discusses some practical actions that can be taken to minimise risks to staff now and to establish compliant ways of working for the longer term. 

The food industry has been highlighted as being a key sector during the current Covid-19 pandemic and food processors are facing incredible pressure to keep feeding the nation while keeping workers safe.   

Food processing operatives are already used to covering up. However, to make workers feel more protected do consider upgrading your existing PPE to offer even more body coverage; such as gloves sealed to the elbow or visors for those who wear glasses. 

As well as deploying more comprehensive PPE, follow the lead of the retail sector and install screens between stationary staff to offer them greater protection when working on a line in close proximity to other operatives. The benefits will be both practical and psychological.

Supporting social distancing
By now, everyone should be aware of the importance of social distancing as the primary means to reduce the transmission of coronavirus and other viruses. However, it is still good practice to prominently display messaging and safe distancing markers to reinforce these guidelines.

It is sensible to update the normal hygiene routine signage and set wall reminders throughout the facility, notably in reception, locker rooms, changeover, washrooms and on the production floor. As individuals respond to different prompts, variety is key so do consider supplementing printed messages with tannoy messages at appropriate times.  

The layout within many sites is dictated by the structure and machinery, so offers little flexibility to spread out the production process.  Even when space is limited, Teknomek has heard of businesses moving elements of their operations into new rooms, or even installing marquees. When these aren’t viable options, the alternatives are to introduce directional lanes and extend the combined production day, or to reduce the range produced so production levels can be maintained with fewer staff. Each action needs to be assessed for its business impact and how to make it viable for the long term. 

Where possible, adapt your existing furniture to support the 2m physical exclusion zone in communal areas such as canteens and smoking areas. It may also be necessary to set up additional smoking areas if there are significant numbers of smokers on a shift.    

Time for a change 
Changing rooms are another problem area given that space is often at a premium and people may be rushing at the start and ends of shifts. If possible, consider introducing zones and staggering the start of each shift so the changeover room can safely accommodate staff with sufficient space for social distancing. This can impact the bottom line if production efficiency is reduced though.  

There are some common-sense hacks that can be used to manage risk – install multiple single person PPE dispensers at safe distances around the room to discourage individuals from clustering in one area; replace or limit the use of multiple-station hand washing points and instead install single units in line with social distancing guidelines. Finally, ensure there are sufficient waste bins deployed alongside paper towel dispensers to reduce any potential for cross-contamination.

High touch, high risk
Use hands-free options whenever possible, each time a touch point is removed, another risk is managed away. Therefore, it is prudent to upgrade standard taps and soap dispensers to infrared or knee operated. If doors are not motion sensor controlled, standard handles should be replaced with sanitising door handles that release viricidal gel on contact.

The World Health Organisation advises the coronavirus ‘may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days’ so think carefully about your cleaning procedures and increase the frequency of garment washing to reduce transference risks. Review the sterilisation of cleaning tools – new technologies are being introduced to be anti-viricidal as well as anti-microbial. 

Last but not least bear in mind that not all food-grade furniture is created equal. While surfaces may be anti-microbial, this isn’t necessarily the case elsewhere. Evaluate each item closely for ‘trap points’ – unnecessary ingresses, ledges and even raised welds – that require contact when cleaning. Any items that are fiddly to clean present a risk and a longer-term cost to the business. 

Businesses should use this period of heightened awareness to embed the highest levels of food safety culture best-practice among staff. While the European Food Safety Authority has determined that coronavirus is not foodborne, additional investment in hygiene control should also have a longer-term positive impact on reducing risks from pathogens such as Campylobacter, Listeria and Salmonella in line with BRC issue 8. 

Sue Springett is commercial manager at Teknomek.

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