s consumers, many of us tend to take for granted the foods we find in our local grocery store. But for the companies that produce those foods, worker safety can never be taken for granted. From physical injuries to mental health concerns, processing plants can present a wide range of hazards.
A frequent hazard is slips. At Gay Lea Foods Co-operative, an Ontario dairy product manufacturer, some areas are always wet and slippery. Floors and equipment are often washed and hosed with sanitizer, and staff have to be vigilant to the danger of slips and falls, says Henry Grbac, director of occupational health, safety, environment and sustainability at the Mississauga, Ont., company.
Employers in this industry also have to protect against cuts and bruises caused by sharp knives and equipment, as well as burns caused by contact with steam or chemicals.
“The chemical ones can be controlled, and they shouldn’t happen. Are employees wearing their PPE (personal protective equipment), gloves and face shield? But sometimes, a pipe might break, or someone is fixing something and if there’s a failure in the system, a person can get some kind of backsplash,” says Grbac.
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are common throughout the industry.
Most of the accidents or injuries at Freybe Gourmet Foods in Langley, B.C. — which produces sausages and deli meats — arise from ergonomic situations: lifting, repetitive movement and strain, says president and CEO Sven Freybe.
In fact, ergonomic design is a major issue in the industry, he adds.
“We try to have as new equipment as possible, and what we buy is stainless steel,” he says. “But the challenge is the way the machines were designed 10, 15 or 20 years ago. They didn’t have ergonomics in mind. So we have a lot of those injuries.”
Workers in the food processing industry can be liable to cognitive hazards, says Rodola Sibuma-Gomez, a key account manager with Workplace Safety and Prevention Services (WSPS) in Mississauga, Ont.
Some companies may have a quota and be striving to produce a certain number of products by a deadline. In other cases, working on a conveyor belt may impose accuracy and speed requirements that can be difficult to meet.
“In chicken plants, there’s an accuracy standard you must meet, or you could cut off a finger. Often, you have to take the wing off precisely and if you don’t, you get sent home; you are let go,” she says.
“There’s a certain stress level in some of these industries. The (mental health issue) is on the forefront now, something we’ve been talking about for the last little while. We should be talking about it a little bit more.”
Gay Lea Foods’ safety program is based on OHSAS 18001 (often called ISO 18001), a widely used international occupational health and safety management systems standard.
That standard, used in combination with ISO 14001, an environmental management system standard, provides the company with a logical and thorough guide to managing safety.
“(The 18001 standard) is a tool we use to ensure that the checks and balances are there, to make sure we cover everything from documentation to training to even design,” says Grbac.
In British Columbia, many food-processing companies have adopted standards developed by the FIOSA-MIOSA Safety Alliance of B.C., which addresses occupational health and safety (OHS) specific to food and beverage processing and manufacturing.
These standards include the Occupational Safety Standard of Excellence (OSSE) program. Through an audit process, OSSE certification recognizes and financially rewards employers who have demonstrated high OHS standards, says Lisa McGuire, CEO of the Chilliwack, B.C.-based organization.
FIOSA-MIOSA also offers training in the creation and maintenance of safety management systems. It starts with a gap analysis to help member companies compare their OHS program to a standard of excellence.
“Once we determine what needs to be done, our advisory services and training are provided through classroom settings, online courses or through customized, on-site training,” says McGuire.
Safety management does not vary a great deal between food processing companies, whether they are producing on a large or smaller, artisan scale, says Sibuma-Gomez.
“I’d be surprised if a lot of the companies we look to today for our food didn’t have some form of management system for their plants and a way of monitoring that system, some sort of continuous improvement and sustainability factor built into their management system,” she says.
Commitment from leadership
Another FIOSA-MIOSA initiative is the B.C. Safety Charter. Launched in 2011, it focuses on leadership as a means of driving cultural change in an active, engaged and results-driven manner, says McGuire.
“CEOs and senior executives set corporate goals and priorities. By signing the charter, they reinforce to their senior executives and workers that worker health and safety are core corporate values that must be recognized as integral parts of the planning process,” she says.
Managers at Freybe Gourmet Foods are expected to participate in safety procedures and reinforce the message of the company’s safety culture. Every day Freybe, a signatory of the B.C. Safety Charter, walks through an area of the facility with the safety manager, asking employees what challenges they face and whether problems have been resolved.
“People see the CEO walking through with the safety manager — those are the things that start to set examples to people: ‘If they’re paying attention to that, we better make sure we do it,’” he says.
“It also holds all of us to a higher account because if they see we’re not wearing our ear protection or safety vests, our staff let us know.”
But management support must go beyond verbal encouragement, says Grbac.
“If I say I need something fixed, and there’s no money, then what’s the point?”
Safety education is seen as a continuing process at Freybe Gourmet Foods. Initial training is intensive. It includes walk-through tours where new workers learn about the food- and people-safety issues within their job areas, says Freybe.
Workers also participate in weekly instruction that focuses on a specific safety topic. Every week, the safety team sends out a message on a topic to supervisors and managers, who are responsible for teaching their staff.
Infractions or other safety issues are reported to the safety committee, which arranges for follow-up observation.
At Gay Lea Foods, a new employee’s first day at work starts with a computer course covering all health and safety hazards. That is followed by group orientation training, where an instructor reviews the hazards and ways to control them. And all staff must attend yearly refresher training, which includes re-training on safety hazards and procedures, such as handling chemicals.
Employees are also reminded they can report hazards to the joint health and safety committee which will make recommendations on how to fix problems.
There is a growing awareness of the importance of good safety procedures and worker education throughout the food processing industry, says Freybe. This is demonstrated with more and more safety and environmental professionals being hired and promoted.
As with many other sectors, the food processing industry knows it must respond to the growing belief among all stakeholders that the protection of workers’ health and safety is of primary importance, says Grbac. The need to decrease workplace accidents and provide a healthier work environment is one that sustains a positive and contributing workplace culture.
“Even our customers are becoming more aware of the need to support companies who foster a healthier environment,” he says. “A successful company is one that goes beyond profit and sees that change begins within oneself — realizing that others may follow.”
Linda Johnson is a freelance writer based in Toronto.