There’s an interesting difference in emphasis between the food and beverage industry and the construction industry when it comes to safety. When it comes to F&B, manufacturers tout things like following FDA guidelines for processes or how few recalls they’ve had. Whereas on the construction side, the point of emphasis is on how few accidents there have been on a project. Now, that’s not at all to say worker safety isn’t being addressed or isn’t a concern in F&B manufacturing, it clearly is. This is simply an observation on what two different industries prefer to highlight.

The difference in what gets emphasized makes complete sense, too, given how contaminated product can affect a much greater number of people than say a single incident with a machine. However, one accident involving a worker at a plant can have ramifications that are on par with, or possibly even worse than, a product recall. What is it that leads to the majority of workplace incidents and what can companies do to help avoid them? We spoke with Mike Zblewski, director of safety services for Sentry Insurance, to learn more.

Mike Zblewski is the director of safety services for Sentry Insurance. Prior to joining Sentry, he spent nearly two decades as a safety and security manager for McCain Foods. Image courtesy of Sentry

FOOD ENGINEERING: What would you say is one of the biggest issues regarding worker safety in a food manufacturing or beverage manufacturing facility?

Mike Zblewski: I think it's two areas. One is the supervisor position and the second one is around the larger topic of employee training.

What is being asked of a supervisor compared to say 20 years ago, is there's fewer of them and there's more on their plate. You may be a supervisor with 30 years’ experience and you've got a lot of that “old school knowledge,” but now there's a robot or some other type of automation sitting in your facility—how do you troubleshoot that?

Another piece to that is where we bring supervisors from the bottom up. There’s this assumption that just because you work for me, you have all the skills necessary to be a leader. That’s not necessarily the case as far as being able to coach and lead, and you’re trying to get 30, 40, 50 people pushing the rock up the same hill because there are fewer supervisors. If you can’t understand it, you can’t coach it. There are a lot of supervisors that are doing the very best they can, it's just that they don't have some of those skills they need.

Successful companies have supervisors that can coach, teach and mentor employees. They’ve invested in that training, which takes both time and resources—there’s a process around that system. If you’re successful in those two areas, you should be able to start a good workplace program, if you will, when it comes to safety.

FE: Is there an advantage to having someone with “old school knowledge” learn new systems, or is it better to bring in someone who knows those new systems but doesn’t have that experience?

Zblewski: I think the most successful instances have a mix of both, but there has to be an understanding of where the mix comes from.

If I'm a 30-year veteran at this facility, that should tell me I have knowledge of my processes, my procedures and all the systems associated. I understand how equipment works and how product moves through. Operationally, I have I have that skill set. So what am I probably missing? It might be communication skills, for example.

I’ve observed supervisors of our clients giving a morning toolbox talk, and a lot of them stumble around and don’t know the importance of an agenda. They have to run that talk like a CEO because it’s the same concept. I think that might be what’s missing from somebody who’s been in the business 20-30 years.

On the flip side, say you bring in someone talented who might have those communications or other “soft” skills, but they don’t know how you do your business. So, they have to learn the operational side. I think with the successful companies, there’s a balance in that training. But you have to have patience and discipline. It goes back to the mindset of time, money, resources.

You’re not going to skimp on a metal detector policy because that’s going to have ramifications in the marketplace—everybody knows and accepts it. Well, have a couple of amputations at $40-, $50-, $60,000 depending what gets cut and how severe, and that’s all impacting your cost per pound and you might lose your competitive advantage.

It’s having that greater educational insight—I’m not going to call it oversight—but insight that will lead to having a good training program at all levels.

FE: Has there been an increase in workplace injuries since “the great resignation” after COVID and from bringing in people from various other industries to fill positions?

Zblewski: The short answer is yes, because if you look at U.S. numbers we're seeing roughly a more than 7% increase in injuries year over year.

In food and beverage, the greatest frequency is still going to be strains and sprains. That’s always going to be number one, but now we’re seeing more of it. Slips, trips and falls is a solid number two.

Third, what you used to see was “struck by”: bruises and contusions, that sort of thing. But that’s been replaced by “caught in between”: putting a hand, clothing or body part in a machine, and you’re seeing more amputations. We’re seeing an increase in those types of injuries. That’s why you go to Illinois, for example or other regions of the country, OSHA has an emphasis program targeting food processing and beverage. Why? Because people are putting their hands in places they shouldn't.

FE: What would you say is a good way of convincing someone who may typically take a reactionary approach to take a more progressive approach to employee training and safety?

Zblewski: We always tell supervisors how to speak to the person above them to get their attention. That usually means how to speak the language of your business in dollars and cents. As an example, in my former life at my facility we made french fries for a large national chain. Everybody knew what the cost per pound was.

I looked at my injury cost on an annual basis. Once, as I was sitting with my plant manager, there was a frontage road with a with a cold storage building next door to it. And as I'm talking to him, just like I’m talking to you, I would interject “11.” We'd continue talking, and then I would say “16.” He was very old school, and then finally asked what I was doing. I apologized and said, “When I get to 23 I'll stop, because that's how many loads of this product we need to cover our injury costs.”

When I finished the sentence, when you talk about flipping on a light switch, all the numbers clicked. Going forward, the ship started to turn because I stumbled across the one mechanism that equated my safety performance to dollars and cents. I got him to understand. Going back to that balance of food safety and workplace safety, instead of being out of balance, it got a whole lot closer to an equal equation.

So, you can't just walk in and say you need $1,000,000. You have to demonstrate in a manner so the person understands the problem in their world.