Food Safety: Protecting Processing Workers from COVID-19

Cheese food processing facilityFood processing facilities, such as ones that process meat and poultry, are considered to be critical infrastructure in the food and agriculture industry. As the coronavirus pandemic continues, all processing facilities that are continuing operations should take measures to protect their workers from being exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace. Recent outbreaks at facilities such as a Tyson Foods chicken processing plant in North Carolina have unfortunately shown that food processing settings are particularly vulnerable to widespread transmission.

The CDC has established guidance for food processing employers and workers, as well as interim guidance for critical infrastructure workers, with the aim to reduce the risk of exposure and community transmission. These guidelines are a good place to start for food processing employers, who should also work with local health authorities to prevent future outbreaks.

The Challenges: Exposure Risk

Currently, there is no evidence that workers are exposed to COVID-19 through the food products they handle. If there is an outbreak of the coronavirus in a facility, this is due to the nature of the work environment; food plants involve large processing lines and other workspaces where employees must have close contact with each other in order to complete their tasks.

Other factors that uniquely affect processing workers’ risk for exposure include:

  • Duration of contact; employees tend to stand very closely together for a prolonged period of time. Many shifts are 10-12 hours, and research has so far shown that continued contact increases the risk of virus transmission.
  • Type of contact; workers in these facilities often share tools and workstations, and eat in large cafeteria settings that accommodate hundreds of people at one time.
  • A common practice among many processing plants is to offer shared transportation to workers, including shuttles or vans and carpooling. Often, workers live in the same areas or in provided housing, which means they have frequent contact with each other not just at work but in community settings as well.
  • Processing facilities tend to have changing rooms or locker rooms where workers change into their work clothing or put on protective equipment. These spaces present further opportunity for transmission of the coronavirus.

Administrative and Engineering Controls

Recommendations for infection prevention in the workplace are based on the hierarchy of controls. When a hazard, such as transmission of the coronavirus, cannot be fully eliminated, other control measures may be put in place. For food processing facilities, engineering and administrative controls can help reduce risk.

Engineering controls that may be implemented include:

  • Enforcing social distancing (where possible) by reconfiguring work environments and communal environments so workers are spaced 6 feet apart. This may involve changing production so appropriate distance can be maintained.
  • Modifying the way workstations are aligned along the processing line so workers don’t face each other.
  • Installing partitions such as plexiglass or strip curtains to physically separate workers.
  • Adding hand washing stations around the facility so workers may wash their hands more easily and more often.
  • Ensuring adequate ventilation throughout the workspace.

Administrative controls that may be implemented include:

  • Educating and training workers on the actions they can take to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
  • Promoting social distancing as much as possible by using markers and signs to remind workers to maintain their distance while working and while on their breaks. These signs may also provide education on hygiene best practices, such as refraining from touching your face and thoroughly washing your hands.
  • Designating specific workers to monitor distancing on the processing floor line.
  • Staggering arrival and departure times as well as break times, and encouraging workers to avoid carpooling to and from work.
  • Increasing sanitation to make sure tools are regularly cleaned and disinfected.

The Importance of Communication

Bilingual Social Distancing Floor SignIn any workplace, infection prevention measures and other safety regulations must be communicated to workers in a language they understand—and this is especially important at food processing plants, which often have a large number of migrant workers. Posters, signs, and trainings should be provided in languages that are common in your worker population, not just in English. Visual communication should also be posted in areas where it’s most likely to be seen, such as the entrance to the facility and in locker rooms or break areas.

The CDC is offering posters and other resources that are available to print and post in your facility. These have been translated into a variety of languages, including Chinese, French, Arabic, Haitian Creole, and more. There are also Spanish social distancing tools and other options that help you accommodate all the employees in your workplace.

Social distancing is difficult to implement in food processing facilities, and recent outbreaks are cause for concern. Processing workers are critical, and their health and safety should be protected. By understanding the unique risk factors, varying hazard controls, and how best to communicate, food processing employers can take definitive steps to preventing the transmission of the coronavirus in their workplace.

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