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Neglect health and safety at your peril, warns engineering specialist

WHEN IT COMES to health and safety in food and drink factories, many tend to focus on hygiene within production and the threat of contamination to products, as well as possible risks for consumers. 

However, the health and safety risks to employees working in these factories are an equally important issue.

2022 HSE statistics show a 28% year-on-year rise in non-fatal injuries in the workplace, with slips, trips or falls, handling, lifting or carrying and being struck by a moving object being the leading causes.

And with more and more people now returning to factories post-Covid, the potential for the numbers to continue to rise exponentially is increasing.

Staff injuries can be particularly detrimental, and not just for the individual, slowing down operations and leading to a decrease in profits along with potential reputational damage. This means that for business owners, being aware of how to minimise the risks is invaluable.

Ian Hart, business development director of Northampton-based engineering company adi Projects, which delivers projects within food and drink factories, says: “The issue of employee safety is one that deserves as much attention as that of contamination within these environments.

“It is a topic of utmost importance. Staff health and safety risks in factories can be overlooked for a number of reasons, and it is vital that these are correctly identified and dealt with for the benefit of employees and overall operations.”

What are the main hazards within food and drink factories?

There are a number of hazards that are common in food and drink factories and that become difficult to manage if the factors posing a threat are not identified and properly dealt with.

“Food factories are inherently full of hazards such as rotating machinery, hot and cold pipes, chemical substances, electrical lines and much more. Humans can become exposed to chemical substances, be required to utilise tools or equipment that are not fit for use, or be subject to slips or falls from height,” says Ian.

“There is a clear element of danger for staff working within these environments. But this doesn’t mean facility owners can become complacent: there are measures and processes that should be put into place to prevent injuries, which can be highly effective.”

According to the HSE, over 30% of food and drink industry injuries are related to manual handling, such as back injuries, causing around 1700 acute injuries each year.

Manual labour including stacking, moving or pushing heavy objects is one of the main causes of injury, and automation of these risky repetitive tasks such as through mechanical handling systems can be instrumental in reducing risks. Yet each individual hazard requires a tailored solution.

“Hazards such as slips, falls and those stemming from workplace transport, moving objects or machinery hazards can’t be eliminated altogether: there are certain processes within factories that can’t be eradicated yet,” says Mr Hart. “But this doesn’t mean that these hazards can’t be controlled to reduce risks.”

Designing factories with safety in mind

“Minimising risks starts with factory design, and has it at its core. There are specific considerations to be taken when designing food factories to maximise safety and increase accessibility.

“Factors include limiting points of contact between hazards and humans, such as having hot or cold pipes in the celling void instead of anywhere near people, or ensuring rotating machinery is adequately guarded, so that risk of injury to those in the factory is minimised.”

With slips and trips making up for 35% of major injuries in the food and drink sector, being caused by wet floors, uneven surfaces or other obstructions, design factors become particularly important in this context.

Ensuring safe access with proper facility design is equally vital when it comes to falls from height – the third most common cause of fatal injury in the industry.

“There is often a mentality that dictates that slips, falls and similar accidents are common in these environments, and that there isn’t much that can be done. But this mindset can be incredibly detrimental,” adds Ian.

“When designing facilities, it’s important to give some thought to the overall infrastructure, asking questions such as how do you make the factory as dry as possible? How do you prevent contamination of walkways, or ensure there’s enough grip on the floors?

“Something as simple as building factories with the proper flooring or having suitable lighting inside the facility can significantly reduce certain risks.

“Ultimately, it’s about alleviating all the sources of danger and reducing staff exposure to hazards. If the risks are adequately addressed at the design stage, achieving continued high levels of safety becomes easier in the long-term.”

Maintenance as a priority

Manufacturers in the industry often operate from older facilities with outdated equipment, which can constitute a challenge with regards to health and safety. Regardless of whether certain safety measures were put into place at the design stage when factories were built, it is likely that unless proper maintenance has been carried out, the facility is no longer safe.

“Regular health and safety assessment of the production lines and of the equipment are essential in any facility. Many forget that over time, equipment breaks down, or decide to make significant alterations without carrying out proper risk assessments,” says Ian.

“Equipment could be perfectly safe and compliant when it’s first introduced, but that doesn’t mean it will remain safe after years of continued usage. Maintenance needs to be a continuous priority: in a live factory, things are changing all the time, which means that the reassessment of lines is vital.

“There has to be an adequate awareness as to the risks brought on by a certain type of equipment, what its life span is and what investments are needed to enable this equipment to continue to be safe.

“And overall, it’s down to manufacturers to build this vital awareness in order to protect its staff and ensure the smooth running of operations.”

Adi Projects is a division of multidisciplinary engineering business adi Group, five-time winners of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents Health and Safety Awards.

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