Hundreds of workers in food factories have tested positive for coronavirus. There have also been major outbreaks in Germany, France, Spain and the US.
According to Lawrence Young, Professor of Molecular Oncology at the University of Warwick, "Factories and, in particular, indoor areas which are cold and damp, are perfect environments for coronavirus to linger and spread. Virus-containing droplets from infected individuals are more likely to spread, settle and stay viable." Another possible factor in these refrigerated workplaces is noisy machinery, which requires people to talk more loudly or shout, which can increase the spread of infected droplets.
In addition, it isn't just the conditions inside the plant that may be increasing the risk of coronavirus spreading. A lot of these factories have on-site or nearby accommodation where there are several people in each dormitory. The workers may be transported on a bus to the site of work, where they then spend all day together indoors and again in the evening.
So what can be done to protect workers? Government has issued guidelines (which can be accessed here) on working safely in food manufacturing – including keeping workers at least two metres apart when possible. The British Meat Processors Association has also issued guidance, including cleaning factories more often than usual, isolating staff who develop symptoms and staggering start times and break times. It also suggests providing additional personal protective equipment such as visors, if available.
It goes without saying that all workplaces will need to have completed robust risk assessments in the current pandemic but, additionally, food processing factories will need to take into account the particular context of their workplace and their workers. In particular, thought should be given to the following:
- The cold, damp environment of a food factory should be considered; is it possible to increase the ventilation?
- Production lines are often within enclosed areas where social distancing is difficult; can better PPE be issued or worker numbers reduced?
- Where are the areas which create 'pinch points' for contamination? How can sanitising facilities be most effective?
- Can shift patterns be organised so that teams are not constantly changing, making it is easier to isolate infected workers? Can teams be kept in the same groupings?
- Does travel between sites and between an individual site and worker accommodation need to be evaluated?
The safety of a business' workforce will continue to be paramount making the guidance issued a 'must read'.
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