Factory walkouts and social distancing: How can food businesses protect workers from COVID-19?

The FSAI have said that employees working in food processing plants should continue to follow ‘the highest hygiene standards’, including the use of some additional personal protective equipment and more frequent hand washing. Concerning social distancing, an expression which is now part of our lexicon, all employers are expected to follow the HSE guidelines ‘as far as is reasonably possible/practical’. But Britain and Ireland’s largest union, Unite, has called for more stringent measures from the two government’s. It believes that the two-metre social distancing guideline for food workers on production lines needs to be made mandatory.

‘The lack of the mandatory imposition of the two- metre rule by the government is a problem currently,’ warned Unite officer for the food industry Bev Clarkson. Clarkson stated that a number of measures to make social distancing practically possible on the production line have been proposed. These include slowing the lines down, rotating personnel and putting up persplex screens. Slowing down production is problematic for food makers who are already struggling to keep pace with a surging demand especially for producers of staple foods, ready meals and non perishable foods.

Factories that are entirely dependent on a human workforce as opposed to automatic processing have the greatest challenges to overcome when it comes to social distancing. That said, one of the most effective and cost-efective actions that can be taken is by educating the workforce and making every individual responsible to personally fight coronavirus through maintained social distancing.

Sam Smith of food safety and equipment specialists Klipspringer has said,’ The nature of how coronavirus spreads with airborne droplets requires going above-and-beyond normal safety and hygiene practices. This includes the introduction of masks and physical segregation barriers between works-items that would not necessarily be expected prior to this crisis’. She added,’ This is also implicated by critical PPE items becoming harder to access, with some companies stating that production will stop and staff will walk off site if PPE is not obtained’.

At present it is hard to know just how far-reaching this situation turns out to be, and the implications it will have on production lines and consequent supply of PPE and raw materials.