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April 21, 2020 Article 5 min read

While plants continue to operate, food and beverage processors face unique food safety challenges and must rethink risk mitigation strategies to protect workers from COVID-19. Start by asking your leadership team and plant managers these five questions.

Factory worker inspecting work stations and factory lines with a tablet in his hand. The devastating situations at several food processing facilities remind us of the unique challenges of food safety and COVID-19 — employees work in close proximity, products are handled manually, and the pressure is on to meet high customer and consumer demand. As other industries think about how to restart their operations once the threat subsides, food and beverage processing plants are forced to rethink their risk mitigation strategies while they continue to operate.

The good news is, the steps food processors and distributors should take to analyze and mitigate risk to protect workers from COVID-19 will be familiar to those who’ve gone through GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) recognition and FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act) certification.

Start by asking your leadership team and plant managers these questions.

1. Have we created our infectious disease preparedness and response plan?

The measures for flattening the curve — employee screening, social distancing, staying home at the first sign of illness, wearing personal protective equipment, and other practices — must now be built into plant operations. If this sounds like changing a flat tire while driving, it is.

You’ll want to define all processes occurring in your plant, conduct a risk analysis of how people move around your facilities, and identify actions to mitigate those risks. Be sure to apply NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) Hierarchy of Controls to the mitigation actions you define.

2. Have we developed a communications and training plan and a validation and verification plan?

Once you’ve defined your risk mitigation strategies, how are you communicating with and training your employees? Education is critical, especially since new information about COVID-19 becomes available by the day.

Consider working with trainers who speak the languages and understand the cultural norms of your workforce to best communicate common goals, the importance of new processes and practices, and the urgency.

3. Have we developed a continuous improvement plan?

Are there projects planned and/or underway to make the necessary changes? Identify those with the greatest near-term impact like adding glass shields to sorting and cutting lines to separate employees, or increasing air and air flow direction away from employee workstations. And consider strategies to automate more of your plant floor.

What other process improvement and technology changes can you make to protect employees and operations? Examples could include sanitizing with U/V light technology and reporting via handheld devices that can be sanitized to replace clipboards, paper, and pencils.

What other process improvement and technology changes can you make to protect employees and operations?

4. What’s the status of our business continuity plan?

How will you keep production running if one of your suppliers is suddenly shut down for two weeks for deep cleaning? How will you manage cash and payroll if your plant has to be shut down for cleaning? How will you keep up staffing levels with a more liberal sick policy? Longer term, how will you manage if you lose customers or suppliers who were not able to recover?

5. How are we coordinating our plans to protect workers from COVID-19 and keep food production safe during the COVID-19 outbreak?

The key here is to integrate your infectious disease preparedness plan into your existing plans — GFSI or FSMA, or into your safety management program. Once established, the plan can unfold as part of these other large initiatives.

Next steps

In the absence of quick action, your plant could find itself forced to shut down for cleaning, running afoul of regulations, negative PR or — most alarmingly — facing staff sickness and casualties.

Instead, leverage the advantage the food and beverage industry already has — its experience analyzing and mitigating risk with effective food safety practices and control systems. The greatest challenges are time and the ability to step back and see your operations in high resolution, which is difficult when you’re immersed in them and under pressure.

Outside experts can help you objectively review your people, plants, and processes to assess risks and help develop mitigation strategies.

Outside experts can help you objectively review your people, plants, and processes to assess risks and help develop mitigation strategies. If you have questions, please reach out; we’re ready to provide complimentary guidance to food processors and distributors. You can also visit our COVID-19 resource center for more information and access to guides and assessment tools.

COVID-19: Respond. Restart. Be ready.

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