The COVID-19 pandemic is shaping the food plant of the future.

Processors and builders trying to slow the spread of COVID-19 and prepare for future potential contagions are rethinking many aspects of plant design—from fixing bottlenecks at entrances to possibly adding warehouse space or portable packaging equipment to handle huge demand spikes or drops.

Applying CDC guidelines for distancing and face coverings to manufacturing spaces is challenging because there are no industry standards to follow, says Darrin McCormies, senior vice president and director of industrial services for Epstein design and construction.

“There's no normal. There's no playbook. There's no standard. We are figuring this out and trying to be smart about adding value and protecting employees.”

When engineering and construction firms talk with food and beverage clients about how their plant layout and operations should shift to tamp down the new coronavirus, these are some of the top changes that processors are considering or already working on:

  • Rethink the trend of shared communal spaces, adding space in new build projects for locker rooms, bathrooms, hygiene junctions and entrances to help workers keep their distance and prevent shift crews from intermingling.
  • Consider whether a new layer of automation makes sense in light of worker outbreaks.
  • Revisit your plan to handle major demand fluctuations like food service providers experienced when restaurants closed. Solutions might include portable packaging equipment, warehousing space, or adjustments to be ready to send product to a co-packer if needed.
  • In existing plants, bump out walls to gain space to spread out restroom stalls or add more clothes changing stalls in locker rooms. Or repurpose your space to add more hygiene junctions and help workers keep their distance.
  • For processing lines under construction, subtly reposition workstations to ensure workers aren’t directly adjacent and to allow space for protective barriers if needed someday.
  • Reconfigure entrance areas or add a vestibule to allow room for walk-through temperature scanners, separate entrance and exit lanes, and isolation areas in case someone isn’t feeling well.
  • Study airflow in areas of high employee concentration. You might need to bring in more fresh air, clean ducts or upgrade filters.

At meat plants where lines are built with tight work stations to maintain speeds needed to meet demands, physical distancing is more difficult. Epstein works with many of the largest meat processors, and McCormies notes that companies reacted quickly to put up plastic screens to try to separate workers and changed procedures to encourage distancing.

Early on, all types of plants rapidly added temperature scanners, plastic barriers between cafeteria seating or between some work stations, and signs and dividers to keep workers moving in one direction.

Companies are thinking through whether to embark on more extensive renovation projects that might take months of construction, in light of uncertainty about how long new safety measures will be needed, McCormies says. “There's some pragmatism to this as well. Let's do the right things. Let's make the right investment and make things better off.”

At the same time, many processors are thinking beyond this outbreak to potential new contagions, according to McCormies and several other design and construction experts. Though the new coronavirus isn’t known to spread through food or packaging, worry about a new foodborne threat in the future crosses people’s minds.

“I don't think anybody thinks this is the end of it,” says Jeff Matis, senior project director at CRB. “I think it's one of what is a natural occurrence that's going to occur again.”

In and out safely

Single entry points seem here to stay because plants have focused heavily on controlling access in recent years and aren’t showing interest in paying to set up security at separate entrances, according to the design experts. Instead, entrance redesigns or additions focus on preventing congestion and providing enough space for health screenings.

Black & Veatch is offering modular stations that a tractor-trailer can drop off outside a plant to provide space for people to not only complete the screening process, but also meet virtually with the company’s telehealth caregiver or take a COVID-19 test if the processor opts to offer them—something more processors are showing interest in, says Roy C. Johnson, business strategist, NextGen Ag, Black & Veatch.

screening app

Black & Veatch partnered with a technology company to offer a digital tool called COVOPERATE that tracks personnel status, displaying a green thumbs up if on a mobile device if a person has met screening requirements to enter the site. An analytical component, called BV Safe Contact, collects and analyzes data to help facilities make operational decisions. The system can even connect to sensors to confirm someone is wearing assigned PPE. It only tracks information when the person is within range of the plant.

After workers answer screening questions on a mobile device app and are cleared to enter the building, the screen displays a green thumbs up symbol. More companies are offering this type of boarding pass to streamline the process.

Since the recent escalation in positive test rates throughout the South and West, more clients are showing interests in long-term solutions, Johnson says. Plants can run power to the Black & Veatch modular units, and the firm continues to consider ways to make them useful as a permanent solution.

EV Group construction and safety management encourages clients to use cloud-based systems for paperless management of COVID-19 screening questions, which should be customized to the facility.

“Don’t create a full-time job for someone to manage paper,” Vice President Michael Petrusma says. “It is a compliance issue; make sure your data is easily accessible and notifies the correct individual if there is a flag.”

The learning process on the best ways to provide entry safety checkpoints is just beginning, Matis says. "A lot of the facilities that we are now designing are looking forward not just to COVID-19 but the next contagion, whatever that may be, and there's a lot more thought going into the means by which people are brought into a facility.”

First aid areas and old nurses’ rooms are being repurposed to give people who are feeling ill somewhere to go that has outside access so they can leave if needed without potentially infecting others. “We don't want to have to bring those people back through the facility,” Matis says.

One idea from Epstein to cut employee contact is to construct a safe path along the building exterior for people heading to the trucking area, for example, after security and health checks at the main entrance. 

Configuring enclosed spaces

Epstein is building incremental square footage for clients to achieve distancing for locker rooms, restrooms and entrances. After processors used their own staff and local contractors to quickly install initial protections—often overnight or in a weekend—many are turning to Epstein to come up with concepts for more extensive changes while considering their plants holistically, McCormies says. 

Since there’s no institutional knowledge about how to design a locker room or bathroom to maintain social distance, he says customers look to Epstein to help figure out solutions. The firm came up with conceptual designs to help manufacturers picture what common areas might look like with distancing precautions added.

The “very best-case scenario” would be to build a larger footprint to accommodate health and safety changes, says John Koury, who provides architectural services for A M King. Plus, he notes that companies under pressure to increase production of some foods do not have enough capacity to deliver with existing structures.

Facilities that can’t build must evaluate how to use their square footage better, with staggered shifts and multiple access points, he says. “To minimize the chance of virus spread, some processors may consider setting up smaller, more dispersed processing facilities that would separate high-risk areas of greater employee concentration from lower risk areas, such as reworked processing spaces physically separate or even in a separate building,” he says.

The idea of “hoteling” and communal space that has been so popular—with features such as common rooms, shared workstations and office areas with no cubicle walls—is getting another look with CRB clients, Matis says. Businesses will weigh whether they can keep these features by implementing new cleaning procedures and usage guidelines, or whether they would be better off going back to more segregated spaces. “We’re challenging a lot of concepts,” he says.

Use of technology to communicate may increase, instead of two people “sitting over a work release sheet, signing a hot work permit,” for example, Matis says. Shifts coming and going may still gather, but they might be separated by barriers and use touchscreens to access shift information.

For workstations and equipment, modular elements that can be taken out, cleaned and moved back in place are getting more attention as a way to help protect employees, on top of their popularity for food safety, he says.

HVAC systems are another area that CRB expects will need a lot of work. Professional organizations have started putting out documentation on the best way to control contagions, including using filters with higher MERV ratings. CRB is working on ways to better segregate return air and isolate areas, and is looking at UV light and additional ductwork cleaning for new projects, Matis says.

Enhanced cleaning procedures and breakdown capabilities are another step in plants’ plans to control their environment, Matis says. “On top of the normal hygiene separation, GMO/non-GMO, allergen separations, now we're talking about how people interact. That'll be just another level of the separation, segregation and cleanability that we implement.”

Food plants, which already put pathogen control at the center of their facility designs and operations, will now add COVID-19 prevention to their food safety protocols. 

“In the same vein as FSMA, there is likely to be an increase in accounting and documenting employee health upon entry and exit to the facility,” says A M King’s Koury.

Manufacturers keep building

Food and beverage processors generally are moving forward with planned capital projects.

But Black & Veatch notes that some have delayed optional or value-added projects, such as those for sustainability or renewable energy. The firm attributes delays to the general uncertainty from COVID-19 and the need to minimize unnecessary personnel in a facility. Some state and local municipalities restricted construction activity as well.

Jeff Roy, CRB senior project director, says clients have been understanding that projects might need to stretch a week or two longer than planned to help space out shifts at construction sites to keep the daily headcount of workers manageable. At the peak, 200 to 400 people may be working at a site at once. Construction managers map out where each crew needs to work to visualize how they can keep safe distance from others. “We've had to get a little creative,” he says.

While Epstein’s work with the hospitality industry has slowed, food manufacturing construction projects underway have continued “without a hiccup,” McCormies says. Some planning and approval for future projects has slowed, which he suspects is partly due to uncertainty but largely to people lacking time because they’re so busy reacting to the pandemic’s challenges. He is encouraged when he asks processors how the outbreak will affect their capital programs: “Everyone says business as usual.”

Some of EV Group’s clients have experienced delays securing equipment from overseas, and the firm is working to get plants the resources they need to complete projects before the end of the year, Petrusma says.

Ready for what’s next

EV Group reminds processors to stay on top of legal requirements and lean on other manufacturers to learn how they are handling the ever-changing demand. “You don’t want to look back and realize you should have done something more,” Petrusma says.

Black & Veatch has seen manufacturers executing projects to be ready for the next interruption in areas such as flexible packaging or in-house warehousing, particularly for cold storage.

Koury points out that a 60,000-sq.-ft. expansion may not make sense financially for a plant in an urban area. “But you could lease a cold storage building and rework your production floor to meet new safety standards.”

He comes back to the idea that a building with highly concentrated workers may not be the ideal plant in the future.

“Really big picture, this pandemic may lead to localization and more small, dispersed processing facilities versus larger, centralized. It will be a balance of supply chain, logistics and efficiency with the benefit of greater flexibility in the event of a disruption like the COVID-19 pandemic.”

As one result of the outbreak, Matis says people likely will be more aware of personal space and hygiene for a long time, and PPE may never regress back to the prepandemic levels in production facilities. 

“Gloves, facemasks, coverings, traditionally required for food safety may be worn in other areas, breakrooms,” he says. “I don't think we have all the answers yet. But it's definitely going to be different world once we come out of this for quite a while.”

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