As the coronavirus breaks out in meat processing facilities around the world, it’s become no secret that the food manufacturing industry is especially vulnerable to the complications that come with mass contamination and highly contagious viruses. While a staggering percentage of people who test positive are asymptomatic, it’s difficult for any organization to grasp the scope of the issue and true safety of their employees and consumers.
It’s important that corporate leaders, factory floor workers and employees along the supply chain are educated and well-equipped to navigate life during and after COVID-19, as “business as usual” is a thing of the past. As manufacturers and major suppliers of all kinds face the challenges of combating the pandemic and keeping employees safe (all while maintaining financial stability and meeting production demands), they’ll need to adopt a multilayered approach. They should start by asking these crucial questions:
Here are five best practices to help address the above concerns:
1. Ensure that workers understand up-to-date virus information. A training foundation for COVID-19 and other infectious diseases must be maintained, and it should outline factual content, proactive measures and appropriate behavior for the food handling setting. This will give companies the peace of mind that their workforces understand the severity of the virus and its impacts on themselves and consumers, how to identify symptoms, and what to do if they or a coworker become infected. Ensuring workers are up-to-date and following recommendations provided by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has been paramount in safety success, as these organizations remain among the most reliable sources for information related to cleaning and disinfecting protocols for facilities, personal hygiene and social distancing measures.
2. Set new standard operating procedures (SOPs). The use of personal protective equipment (PPE), including gloves, eye and face protection, and respiratory protection – along with adherence to standards related to occupational exposure – should continue to be mandated in these work settings. However, as measures become more advanced, it’s also important that organizations leverage tools like contact-tracing apps, infrared temperature scanners and touchless time clock systems to combat workplace exposure. Investment in technology solutions and IT infrastructure to support safety (and remote communications when possible) is a key step in avoiding outbreaks. Aside from this, it’s also crucial that food processing and packaging facilities schedule staggered shifts and breaks, restructure work hours when possible, require minimal and smaller group meetings, and limit workers from congregating socially or traveling together to different areas of the facility.
3. Enforce and monitor these new practices for the long-term. Effectively administering new SOPs requires a significant investment of time, people and systems. Building a framework and charting a course for implementation will be vital. As time goes on, dynamically responding to learnings from the early days of COVID-19 will minimize confusion and disruption. Having a plan to monitor SOPs, process crucial insights and roll out adjustments will be key in continued safety and success.
4. Facilitate a pandemic policy. Whether a facility is building one from scratch or strengthening its current policy, identifying a coordinator to oversee procedures, implementation and testing of the plan and emergency communication strategies is critical. Similar to the above, organizations should periodically review these plans to ensure effectiveness. These policies must also include a post-pandemic process, ensuring organizations and their supply chains are prepared for future fluctuations or new waves of infection. Many businesses have a policy in place but fail to define comprehensive transitional protocol.
5. Communicate and verify training programs across the supply chain. Safety training is an essential element of occupational health and safety programs and is required by OSHA. To protect workers throughout COVID-19 and prepare them for the potential second wave, organizations should continue to include pandemic training and preparedness in their required safety training across all touchpoints. They need to confirm that anyone entering their worksites is aware of and will adhere to all new policies and procedures. It’s also important to consider that workers have experienced various levels of emotion and stress throughout the pandemic, which may affect their behavior and safety, including those of others at facilities. These vulnerabilities must be safeguarded and takes us back to step one: ensuring all workers and stakeholders truly understand the scope of the situation. By including behavior-based safety as part of these standardized training programs across all operations, companies can emphasize the importance and consequences of how a worker’s attitude can affect their behavior, its impact on others and the supply chain as a whole.
Implementing a holistic approach that addresses infectious disease policy is more than just training workers and providing information on COVID-19. It requires comprehensive support, credentialing and verification to ensure workers deeply understand the new and enhanced standard operating procedures in place, especially in high-risk industries like food handling, packaging and processing. True workforce safety depends on all touchpoints and employees having a clear comprehension of their organization’s infectious disease policies, ensuring they make it home safely during these unparalleled times.
James Junkin is founder and president of Mariner-Gulf Consulting & Services, an international risk management firm.
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