End Flap: Let’s Worry About the Real Danger

May 23, 2022
Don’t let food processing plant fire conspiracy nonsense distract from ongoing worker safety issues.

There are plenty of dangers to worry about inside a food plant. But arson isn’t really one of them – no matter what Twitter says.

We live in the age of conspiracy theories, so perhaps it was inevitable that one of them would touch the food and beverage industry. Starting about late April, alarms started going around Twitter that food plants across the country were suffering an unusual number of fires and other accidents. Tweets abounded that listed a string of incidents and darkly hinted at conspiracies by Bill Gates, George Soros and some of the other usual suspects.

Things really got moving when Tucker Carlson took up the matter on his Fox News show April 21. He talked about “lot of industrial accidents at food processing facilities at the same time the President is warning us about food shortages.... What is going on here, exactly?”

Well, what’s going on is coincidence. As fact-checkers got to work on these claims, they noted a lot of exaggerations and gaps. For example, one incident that supposedly happened “right before” another had in fact occurred almost two years previously. A couple of these accidents involved plane crashes, one of which, sadly, took the pilot’s life; that doesn’t fit very well into a “sabotage” narrative.

But for a nothing story, it sure got lots of attention. My blog post on the matter drew about 100 times the page views it normally does. (It also got me a few emails accusing me of being a commie woke Bill Gates stooge, etc.)

To me, the whole thing is less amusing than dismaying. And I don’t mean because so many people are prone to believing such silly things; welcome to democracy. I’m dismayed because too much attention is being paid to nonsense like this and not enough to the real dangers that food plant workers face every day.

For our June issue, I wrote an article on lockout/tagout (LOTO) procedures and why they’re often not followed. LOTO violations constituted, at 22%, the largest single category of all citations issued to food & beverage plants by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration in the latest 12-month period available.

There are tragic consequences aplenty: the 42-year-old worker killed in a frozen pizza plant when he was cleaning a piece of equipment and it started up; the six workers who died when they were overcome by nitrogen gas in a malfunctioning freezer in a chicken plant.

What’s especially dismaying and infuriating is the spectacle of repeat offenders. An ice-cream plant was cited for an accident in which a worker lost a finger in a packaging machine in 2020; the same thing, on the same machine, had happened two years earlier.

The reason for LOTO noncompliance can be boiled down to four words: “It’s too much trouble.”

Shutting down electrical power (or compressed air, or liquid nitrogen) for a machine usually means shutting down the entire line that the machine is part of. It’s easy to do this for planned downtime, like scheduled maintenance. But with unexpected downtime, like jams, there’s an overwhelming temptation to “just take care of the problem” as quickly as possible, so the line will keep moving.

That’s where management has to step in, first by setting down written LOTO procedures, then by enforcing them through means like spot inspections. More basically, and more subtly, they have to make sure that the “keep it moving” mentality doesn’t become the be-all and end-all; that if things have to slow down or stop for safety’s sake, they’ll slow down or stop.

Food processing work is hard, but it shouldn’t be life-threatening. Let’s pay more attention to the real dangers that workers face, and less to notions like Joe Biden and Bill Gates driving up the price of food by having planes crash into plants.

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