Your maintenance area may be more of a food safety hazard than you think.

Richard F. Stier
Think of a food plant safety audit and many plant operators and managers first think about the processing area. But one of the most common problem areas is actually the shop and/or maintenance department. Tools may be askew, lubricants stored helter-skelter and the maintenance staff may be dressed in clothes that are greasy or dirty. Remember, it's a food plant not a garage.

Perhaps nowhere is the old adage "a place for everything and everything in its place" more applicable. In the shop, there is a great potential for cross-contamination, especially if maintenance people aren't cognizant of the dangers. Processors who follow that old saying will be much less prone to problems.

The first step is to mandate that the maintenance staff keep the shop clean and well-organized. Lubricant storage is an excellent place to start. Every plant says it only uses food grade lubricants in areas where food is processed and on equipment that is used to process or move food. Yet, when food grade and non-food grade lubricants are stored together in similar containers, you increase the chances for cross-contamination and the likelihood that the incorrect lubricant may be used. Efforts should be made to store these products in separate areas and to clearly delineate which products are food grade and which are not. Some processors color code grease guns, while others use distinctive containers.

Likewise, tools must be used properly and for their intended applications to eliminate potential contamination risks. One simple way to accomplish this is to store tools in the vicinity of where they will be used. Of course, storing tools in a plant can create other problems. They could get lost or they might be removed. Some processors store the tools in lock boxes to which only maintenance people have access. I have even seen operations where the tools are hung in locked storage units with clear, unbreakable plastic covers. Only managers and maintenance staff have access to the boxes. The clear covers allow management to be sure the tools are properly stored.

When it comes to the storage facilities in the shop or processing area, be sure to take into account what is being stored and who will be using it. For example, if an operator places flat topped lockers or benches in the plant area, it usually does not take long for these spaces to begin to accumulate other treasures. Oftentimes, what is kept on or in such areas has no place in a food plant or anywhere near a location where food is handled. Sanitarians recommend that lockers or cages used for personal item storage be cleaned regularly, be accessible for cleaning (at least six inches above the floor), and have gabled or slanted tops. Many prefer cages so management can easily see that no food or drinks are within them. The same principle should be applied to storage areas in the plant. I have yet to see a flat topped locker that is used for equipment storage in a plant that does not have something on top of it.

Finally, don't overlook the maintenance staff. More operators are providing plant workers and managers with smocks, lab coats or uniforms that minimize the potential for product contamination. The clothing is designed with snaps or Velcro clasps rather than buttons and has no breast pockets. To further prevent the chance of cross-contamination, you may want to establish changing rooms between raw and cooked food areas.

Each and every processor needs to take the appropriate steps to protect product. This includes providing the workforce with the tools and support to properly do the job. An organized maintenance shop may not be the first safety concern that comes to mind, but in food production where and how your maintenance staff parks tools and equipment can be the key to improving plant safety.