Keeping employees safe during the COVID-19 pandemic
Consider this statement from the National World War II Museum in New Orleans:
To conserve and produce more food, a “Food for Victory” campaign was launched. Eating leftovers became a patriotic duty and civilians were urged to grow their own vegetables and fruits. Millions of “victory gardens,” planted and maintained by ordinary citizens, appeared in backyards, vacant lots and public parks.
It underscores the importance of food during wartime. Given the ongoing issues with the COVID-19 virus and the reactions by government, which is treating the ongoing battle as if it was a war, the food industry is going to have to step forward.
Any processor that intends to operate during this period should first go to the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and look for the guidance for Businesses and Employers (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/guidance-business-response.html). There are several elements that are addressed in the agency’s guidance for workplaces:
- Reduce transmission among employees
- Maintain healthy business operations
- Maintain a healthy work environment
The processor should name a point person who will coordinate the company’s efforts in these three areas.
Reduce transmission among employees
There are several points in this category. They include notifying management and staying home if one is sick, following CDC guidelines for home isolation, not returning to work until your health provider determines that it is time, and finally, ensuring that employees who are not sick but have ill family members stay at home.
An integral element of a processor’s food safety plan is the risk assessment that must be done on each ingredient, raw material, packaging material and each step in the process. The same is required for COVID-19. Each and every processor should conduct a risk assessment of their operations to determine where in the process workers might be exposed to the greatest risk and develop and document programs to mitigate the risk or risks.
If a worker shows symptoms of the illness, he or she should be separated from the rest of the workforce, customers and visitors, and sent home. If there is a confirmed case of COVID-19, management should inform the remainder of the workforce and ask employees to self-monitor for symptoms, including temperature monitoring for two weeks.
The company should also review the basics with its workers on what employees can do to protect themselves and prevent the spread of the disease. This includes coughing into an elbow, washing hands frequently, avoid touching your face, staying at least 6 feet apart, etc. If the operation uses temporary employees and an agency to supply them, make sure that the temporary agency understands the company policies with regards to the virus.
Processors and handlers must also establish a visitors/contractors policy that minimizes interaction between people. Meetings should not be done face-to-face but via teleconference or video conference. Work with contractors to schedule necessary visits after hours when there are fewer people. And question these persons prior to visits about whether they are sick or may have been exposed to the virus. If so, postpone the visit or ask for a healthy technician.
As an example, work with your pest control operator (PCO) to schedule routine visits on a weekend, but be sure that someone is there to welcome them to the plant and accompany him/her on the rounds—at a safe distance. Lastly, try to keep the truckers in their vehicles. If they must exchange information with the warehouse people, set up the shipping/receiving office with a sneeze guard and a means of exchanging documents with a minimum of contact. For truckers who like to inspect their load, have the warehouse people photograph or video the loaded trailer and send the pictures to the driver.
The processor needs to fully document its expectations and the risk assessment, ensuring that all workers fully understand. Legal counsel should review the documents and suggest any needed updates.
Maintain healthy business operations
This element targets what companies should do to ensure that they maintain a healthy business environment that also minimizes the potential risk to the people. The COVID-19 coordinator will be responsible for managing the company’s response to the illness and continuously reviewing impact on the site.
The company should also examine current practices governing sick leave. Persons who may have been exposed to the virus will need to stay home. In addition, if a worker is needed at home to care for a sick relative or family member, he or she should be given that option. Ask the human resources group to compare current policies with CDC recommendations to determine whether they need modified.
The processor should also emphasize the importance of social distancing to workers. This includes more than simply maintaining distance. Other options are working remotely, implementing flex-time, postponing nonessential travel and reducing head count to help with distancing.
It would also be a good idea to develop emergency plans in the event the situation changes. One basic element in most food processors’ tool box is a crisis management program, which addresses what to do if there are issues such as power failures, fires, bioterrorism, floods, hurricanes or tornadoes. These programs often include a contingency plan in the event production is curtailed at a facility. Processors should review their existing crisis management programs and adopt any relevant elements from them to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Maintain a healthy work environment
There are a number of things that a processor can do to enhance the quality of the food processing facility. One is to increase the rate of ventilation and make an effort to bring more fresh outside air into the facility. Many food processors, especially ones producing sensitive products, draw outside air through a battery of filters, including a HEPA filter. Flow rates can be increased, but such an action could result in more frequent changes in the filters, so do work with maintenance and the HVAC contractor.
As always, processors need to ensure that the workers have what is needed to properly wash their hands. This means that all handwash sinks must be properly supplied with soap, warm water, a means to dry hands and sanitizer. It also means that there must be enough handwash sinks to accommodate the whole team, so processors may need to purchase more sinks. And it is imperative that all handwash sinks be hands-free to minimize the potential for cross-contamination.
Note the reference to hand sanitizers, a commodity that has become quite precious and rare. Processors need to ensure that they have adequate supplies of hand sanitizers. And if it cannot be found in a store or ordered from your chemical supplier, consider making your own. There are processors that are already doing so. If sanitary wipes can be purchased, distribute them to all staff with instructions to routinely wipe down their work area.
Food processors should also consider ordering masks for their workers. The masks may not be needed, but they can also serve as a security blanket for some. But, do remember, if a company does decide to purchase masks, go with ones that will be comfortable and effective. There have been warnings already about the efficacy—or lack thereof of—for certain masks.
Processors should also step up cleaning and sanitizing, especially surfaces that may be routinely touched or handled, such as door handles, lunch tables, vending machines, testing equipment and handrails.
The processor should also establish a program to audit supplies, handwash sinks and any other programs that have been established on a daily basis. This is not a time to run out of something. Establish a program to reorder based on maximum delivery times.
The world must eat, so the food industry and all those industries that are essential to growing food, harvesting that food, processing food and moving that food are essential to our way of life and must go on. But to go on, the industry must do everything in its power to protect its workers.