Advice on Maintaining Social Distancing in Food Processing Plants

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The Public Health England (PHE) executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care in the United Kingdom has issued guidance on social distancing measures that now apply to workers in food processing plants within the UK. This guidance is given to help reduce the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus and reduce mounting pressure on the National Health Service as it struggles to provide care and comfort to those in need.

Food safety practices in food processing plants should continue to be delivered to the highest hygiene standards including the use of personal protective equipment and frequent hand washing with soap and warm water for 20 seconds or more per wash. Personnel not essential to factory operations should be asked to work from home, if possible.

Food production workers should maintain a distance of at least two meters between each other to minimize odds that the virus will spread from human to human. Where the production environment makes this more difficult, employers need to consider what control measures can be put in place in order to protect employees as follows:

  • Consider time segregation, running lines slower for longer.
  • Consider physical segregation for example Perspex panels to segregate workstations (remember, they need to be cleanable).
  • Clocking in areas can lead to personnel in proximity. Consider start/finish times being staggered to avoid a mass rush.
  • Changing areas can also lead to clustering of people; consider personal protective equipment (PPE) to be used, this being laid out for people to provide quicker, easier access, or consider locker blocks being reorganized.
  • Corridor areas – consider use of “one way” traffic flows, or “keep left” flows to minimize contact, confusion and reduce time spent in confined areas.
  • Consider markings on the ground to encourage appropriate levels of distancing – this should be two meters. Where possible allow a buffer area to avoid close congregation of personnel.
  • Employee monitoring such as temperature control could be considered in recording employee temperatures at the start of a shift using infrared thermometers and reporting any sudden rises in temperature.
  • All non-essential work whether completed by employees, agency or contract should not be carried out.
  • To reduce the risk of the virus spreading, employee movement between sites should cease, essential employees, contractors and temporary workers must be dedicated to one site.
  • Non-essential external visits should be prohibited unless these are essential to statutory inspections for pressure systems or lifting equipment (these would require strict protocol/further assessment and controls).
  • Factory canteens are a key opportunity for personnel to congregate and invade social distancing. Consider staggering breaks, providing additional space to allow personnel to spread out more or taking breaks in personal cars (important to remind colleagues to sanitize their cars regularly).
  • Consider how movement around a site and between different production areas could be reduced.
  • Consider a slightly different workflow to avoid the need to move something from A to B to C, which could in turn reduce opportunities for virus transfer.
  • Consider if one person can carry out all the movements of goods between two areas rather than several people all doing this.
  • If there are doors that do not need to be closed (with the exception of fire doors), perhaps they could be wedged open to reduce touch points.
  • Fire drills should be deferred, and employers should supply employees and other workers evacuation procedures, site plans and details of fire assembly points until these can be completed at the earliest opportunity as social distancing measures are relaxed.
  • Review smoking areas. Stagger breaks or extend the smoking areas to allow appropriate distancing, use spacings on the ground to direct personnel.
  • Once staff have left the food processing areas and removed protective clothing, social distancing and further hand washing guidance should be adhered to.