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Adapting hygiene measures to protect workers

13 July 2020

John Holah considers what additional hygiene measures need to be put in place to reduce the risk to workers during the current pandemic. 

Because there is no real evidence that Covid-19 is transmitted via food or food packaging* it is important that existing, standard, routine cleaning practices – to remove food soils – and disinfection – to control bacterial pathogens – should continue to be used without change. Cleaning and disinfection practices have been developed as an effective measure to control microbial pathogens while maintaining the quality of food products and minimising the risks to materials of construction and cleaning operative safety. They should be seen, therefore, as separate to any coronavirus decontamination strategies where the target microorganism is SARS-CoV-2 and the major risk is to the cleaning operative and not the food consumer.

The primary focus of any additional hygiene and sanitation measures implemented by food businesses is on keeping the SARS-CoV-2 virus out of their businesses and reducing potential cross contamination within the business. 

Cross contamination with hands as the vector must be considered. It may be worth identifying the following touchpoints by their category because the frequency of cleaning/sanitation will vary. With the variety of surfaces, it is important to choose a cleaning method that is appropriate, effective and does not damage the surface. For instance, with plastic or stainless-steel door handles a disinfectant wet wipe or a dry wipe plus spray disinfectant would be suitable. With a computer an alcohol based wet wipe would be most suitable.  Key touchpoints include:

• Touchpoints that are specific to an operator or to a small group of operators: This would include, for example, stop/start buttons or an HMI screen on a piece of equipment or a production line. Generally, these are cleaned as part of the hygiene clean. It is recommended that these are also cleaned and disinfected as part of the break or interim clean and at least twice per shift. 

• Touchpoints that are specific to a large group of food facility operatives: This will include items within the changing and food processing facility including hand soap, paper, PPE and hand sanitiser dispensers, door handles and telephones. Again, it is suggested that these are cleaned as part of the break or interim clean and at least twice per shift. 

• Touchpoints that are general to staff will include a large number of surfaces within the factory: For example, door handles, canteen trays, drinks machines, tables, chairs, telephones, computers, printers, specialist equipment (consider QC, development or sampling labs). It is suggested that these are cleaned hourly. 

• Touchpoints that are general to staff and the public: These points should be minimised to reduce the chance of cross contamination but may include areas such as goods in, goods out, reception and post. Again, it is suggested that these are cleaned hourly. 

If there are frequently touched surfaces where the touching of such surfaces cannot be avoided – for example, stair rails – it would be useful to install hand hygiene stations adjacent; so that hands can be immediately decontaminated. 

A frequent question being asked is ‘Do I need to change my barrier controls?’ Barrier controls exist at the point of delivery and exit to a food facility and within a facility. These barriers should be reviewed and strengthened if necessary. It is good practice for drivers and other staff delivering to (or taking away from) food premises not to leave their vehicles during delivery. Drivers should be supplied with an efficacy tested hand sanitiser, a disinfectant, and paper towels. Drivers should use a hand sanitiser before passing delivery documents to food premises staff. Disposable containers and packaging should be used to avoid the need for cleaning of any returns. In the case of reusable containers, appropriate hygiene and sanitation protocols should be implemented. 

‘Changing and washrooms are a major control barrier to reduce introducing physical or microbiological hazards into the food processing area. The procedures in place should be re-evaluated to ensure they are sufficient to control the additional hazard of SARS-CoV-2. This should include:

• Physical separation during changing and handwashing should be maintained. 
• Food workers should avoid touching their mouth and eyes whether wearing gloves or not. If they do touch, then they should immediately wash their hands. 
• Correct handwashing and drying procedure should be followed by all staff with compliance monitored and training carried out. Frequent hand washing remains the best way to control Covid-19 transmission. 
• High velocity/pressure hand dryers which can spread large droplets locally should be routinely cleaned and including the surrounding area. 
• Paper hand towels should be binned and a routine of emptying the bins and sanitising adopted. 
• Hand sanitiser stations should ideally be available within the food processing areas such that no contact with door handles is required prior to starting work and to allow operatives to frequently resanitise their hands. 
• Disposable gloves should not be used in the food work environment as a substitute for handwashing. The Covid-19 virus can contaminate disposable gloves in the same way it does hands. Also, removal of disposable gloves can lead to contamination of hands. Wearing disposable gloves can give a false sense of security and may result in staff not washing hands as frequently as required. 
• Existing sanitising tunnels or door entry sprays should be verified as working. 

Physical distancing is also important to help reduce the spread of Covid-19. This is achieved by minimising contact between potentially infected individuals and healthy individuals. All food businesses should follow physical distancing guidance as far as reasonably possible. Where the food production environment makes it difficult to do so, employers need to consider what measures to put in place to protect employees. A useful guide is UK Gov – ‘Working Safely during Covid-19’. Examples of practical measures to adhere to physical distancing guidance in the food-processing environment include: 

• Staggering workstations on either side of processing lines so that food workers are not facing one another or evaluate the use of screens. 
• Providing PPE such as face masks, hair nets, disposable gloves, clean overalls, and captive footwear. The use of PPE would be routine in high-risk areas of food premises that produce ready-to-eat and cooked foods. 
• Space out workstations, which may require reduction in the speed of production lines. 
• Limit the number of staff in a food preparation area at any one time. 
• Organise staff into working groups or teams to facilitate reduced interaction between groups. 
• Stagger work breaks for staff to reduce risk in change areas, canteens and toilets. 
• Arrange shift change-over timings to reduce risk of excess staff from both shifts being in the same areas at the same time (e.g. changing and washroom areas).

John Holah is technical director at Holchem.

*EFSA Europe – Food Source Transmission UK Gov, England - Consumer Guidance UK Gov, England - Food Business Guidance FSA, Scotland – Information in Relation to Food the Food & Drink Industry - Q&A

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