Process and Operations / Plant Safety

Cultivating a Culture of Safety in Food and Beverage Plants

The financial benefits of reducing on-the-job injuries are clear, but there’s a bigger payoff from continuous improvement in worker safety.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

worker safety

The good news in workplace injuries and fatalities in general and in food and beverage manufacturing in particular is that rates are continuing a slow, steady decline. The bad news is that 46 food workers died last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and another 76,900 food, beverage and tobacco workers were injured seriously enough to require time away from work.

Whether an organization responds best to a carrot or a stick, there's a strong case for cultivating a safety culture. Breeches in workplace safety don’t generate the costs or negative publicity of a food safety event, but the dollars and cents are significant.

Insurance underwriters take a dim view of unnecessarily dangerous work environments, and too many recordable injuries and lost-time events will keep a company off everybody’s best-places-to-work list. Virtually every corporate social responsibility report includes an employee health and safety section that lays out in cold, hard numbers the corporation’s success or failure in lowering injury rates.

Metrics such as OSHA incident rate are unblinking report cards of outcomes, but they don’t shed light on the best practices in safeguarding workers’ health. Food products are produced in industrial environments with inherent dangers. Defensive measures to minimize risk are necessary, but continuous improvement requires proactive steps, such as investigation of near-miss events.

As with food safety, worker safety begins with a commitment from the top. The absence of a top-down approach will doom improvement programs, which will flounder from a lack of direction and resources. With management’s support, employee safety committees and internal audit recommendations will flourish.

As manager of safety and employee relations, Francisco Olivarez credits Ocean Mist Farms' segment-leading results to the involvement of top managers and an owner who sits on the safety board of the produce firm. Worker and food safety are placed on equal footing, and the Castroville, Calif., firm was the 2013 winner of AgSafe’s All Ways Safe award for large packing houses. At peak hours, 33 lift trucks weave through the processing and shipping areas of the facility. In mid-June, the facility marked 303 accident-free days. “Safety is a continuous effort and challenge to improve,” says Olivarez.

The U.S.’s largest grower of artichokes, Ocean Mist harvests, packs and ships a wide variety of produce in the self-proclaimed Salad Bowl of the World, a.k.a. Monterey County, where the majority of U.S. leaf and head lettuce and a plurality of broccoli, spinach and other crops are grown. Safeguarding field workers is important, although the danger level is higher after the harvest. Heavy machinery and fast-moving transport vehicles are ubiquitous at the Castroville plant.

The valley pioneered transcontinental shipments of vegetables, packing them in ice for rail transport, and that method still is in use. But shipping ice can be less economical than advanced cooling technologies, and East Coast customers are choosing options such as Ocean Mist’s vacuum cooling with ammonia refrigeration to get crops below 40°F. “There’s a hazard with ammonia, and you do all you can to minimize the risk of leaks,” Olivarez notes.

A HACCP approach is taken to worker safety. “When we have an incident, we do a thorough investigation and analysis of how it happened and what we do to prevent it in the future,” he explains. Rather than fear OSHA, the company invites the agency to inspect the facility and review programs and practices, turning a potentially adversarial relationship into a consultative one.

The company has a second cooling facility in Coachella, Calif., with operations shifting between the two during the year. Before operations resume in either one, forklift drivers undergo two days of training, regardless of their years of tenure. More than 100 cameras throughout the Castroville facility support enforcement of safety rules. If a driver is recorded operating an overloaded lift truck, the videotape holds the driver to account.

Top-down push

“Change management is one of the most important aspects of safety,” suggests Sean Foran, senior strategy manager-manufacturing at W.W. Grainger Inc., a Lake Forest, Ill.-based industrial-supplies distributor. “There’s a heightened awareness not only of the importance of keeping workers safe and facilities operating in a safe manner, but also of the negative impact on the corporate brand image when someone is injured.” As a result, company leaders are buying into the need for proactive safety initiatives.

Best known for its omnibus parts catalogue, Grainger’s biggest sales category is safety-related products, including personal protective equipment (PPE). To add depth to product selection, more than 250 Grainger field agents have undergone a 10-hour training program on assessing safety risks in a workplace. The firm expects to have a 400-strong force of OSHA 10 certified specialists by year end.

Lacerations are the most common injuries in food production, particularly in meat and poultry plants, and glove suppliers continuously strive to develop gloves that both protect and provide comfort and flexibility needed to do a job, says Foran. Arc flash protection is another PPE growth area, and machine guarding is getting particular emphasis.

Some processors include gloves with other mandatory PPE. Anyone working with equipment at Starbucks’ roasting plants is required to wear Kevlar gloves, for example, along with a safety-green vest, safety shoes and a hard hat or bump hat.

OEMs and line integrators bear liability if new machinery isn’t properly guarded, according to Eric Esson, sales and marketing manager for Rite Hite Machine Guarding, a Milwaukee division of Rite-Hite Doors that until recently was known as Frommelt Safety Products. And while guarding systems are evolving and getting better, gaps in existing standards can create new risks when manufacturers automate tasks.

To illustrate, Esson cites pallet wrapping. Handwrapping requires stooping and walking backwards, and automating the process with a stretch wrapper is a safety upgrade. Ideally, stretch-wrap machines would be subject to the same standards as robotic machines, he says, but instead they fall under the general duty clause, which offers only vague guidance. While the machines only rotate at 15-20 RPMs, that’s enough to break a worker’s arm. “That workplace injury costs thousands of dollars,” Esson cautions. Painting a yellow line around the machine provides scant protection.

If physical barriers are impractical, signage can provide a cautionary message that reinforces hazard communications. “Robust signage easily identifies companies that have it dialed down,” Grainger’s Foran maintains. The messages haven’t changed, but sign placement is expanding to include both production and employee welfare areas. Bilingual messages also are becoming more prevalent, he adds.

Just-in-time logistics quickens the pace on loading docks, and food companies are migrating from wheel chocks to fail-safe systems to prevent trailers from leaving their bays before loading or unloading is complete. Serious injuries and fatalities involving lift trucks are a chronic problem and a particular target of OSHA directives; in a recent six-year span, 86 fatalities were recorded in the six-state Great Lakes region alone.

When Starbucks built a roasting plant in Sandy Run, S.C., in 2008, it supplemented wheel chocks and ICC bar restraints with a locking device placed on trailers’ air lines. The device’s key is placed in a red lockbox, and operators must complete a safety checklist before removing the key and disengaging the air-line lock.

Chocks provided the only security at New Belgium Brewing when it built a packaging hall in 2007. Five years later, the brewery retrofitted the 25-bay facility with automatic vehicle restraints and hydraulic dock levelers, there and at a nearby 20-bay distribution center in Fort Collins, Colo. As facility/project manager Bruce Clark explains, a near-miss event spurred additional investment in dock safety. "We also wanted to make everything user-friendly and pretty much bullet-proof to eliminate any chances for accidents, as we have grown so big, so fast," he adds via e-mail.

Work rules can be as effective as capital expenditures. Injury events were caused by drivers pulling away before loading was completed, so Ocean Mist painted yellow circles with the outlines of two footprints inside them adjacent to each bay. “The driver has to be standing in that circle while loading is going on,” Olivarez says; otherwise, loading shuts down.

“Companies are being proactive, insurers and consultants are making recommendations, and loading-dock best practices are getting better,” summarizes Rite-Hite’s Esson. The same can be said of other work zones, regardless of whether there are issues industry-wide or company-specific. Every accident or near-miss is an opportunity to improve overall safety. Seizing the opportunity is simply good business.