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Integrating Sustainable Safety into Your Food Manufacturing Practices

Food manufacturing companies must encourage employee involvement in their safety and sustainability initiatives through all policies and practices.

Workers examining cashews

There are many fast-moving steps to bring food to the consumers’ table with little to no room for downtime due to accidents and interruptions from safety issues. Safe operations benefit everyone, from protecting the employee to protecting the organization from divesting resources to react to incidents. By leveraging safety influence within your facility, you can integrate safety into your organization’s existing sustainability efforts to control costs, increase efficiencies, and ensure business continuity. By actively managing risks you can mitigate losses protecting the organizational bottom line.

Food manufacturing sustainability is not just a passing trend. Efforts to include actionable processes work to balance people, planet, and profit for long term operations. Without a focus on the safety and health of workers (i.e., the people) sustainability cannot exist. Food producers are keen on ensuring steady and efficient operations to help keep food costs down and food supplies readily available to consumers. It’s not new, either. Upton Sinclair documented the perils and pitfalls of large-scale food processing over 100 years ago in the eye-opening book “The Jungle,” published in 1905.

Accidents injure the individual worker and can harm the organization from injury response, decontamination and urgent corrective actions. Not to mention the reputational impact of being an unsafe employer, as well as significant fines and penalties. Utilizing the safety pays estimator found on the OSHA website can help determine the true cost of an accident to an organization based on their profit margin. For example, if a food manufacturer operating at 8% profit margin incurs two amputation injuries in one year with the estimated direct cost of $192,006 (USD) and indirect costs of $211,206 (USD), that organization would need to generate an additional $8,064,238 (USD) in sales to cover the total costs incurred.1

From sourcing and growing to ingredient selection, processing, distribution, and eventually, consumption, every step in this chain creates unique challenges. Integration of safety practices into Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) increases sustainability through smooth operations without costly upset conditions. Through its GMP regulations the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets requirements for methods, facilities and controls in food manufacturing. These regulations and practices help increase safety and address aspects of manufacturing from record keeping and sanitation to equipment verification and complaint handling. Integrating safety activities into existing GMP and policies strives to prevent harm to employees, organizations and the environment through mitigating hazards, understanding impacts and identifying opportunities for continuous improvement.

Integration management starts with incorporating safety and sustainability attributes throughout all your policies and practices. The distribution of safety responsibilities across production, logistics and support functions defines specific and actionable tasks that can be measured for performance and improvement. For example, you can start by having each department define how they will meet the organizational safety requirements for their standard operating procedures. This can often be started by rebranding the existing standard operational procedures to safe operating procedures. For maximum effectiveness, it is critical to have employee involvement in the development or modification of operating procedures. By directly engaging the employee you create buy-in because they have helped create a safety initiative they can lead and drive through their own actions on the production floor. Choosing a diverse and motivated group of employees is a good start but cooperation increases when they begin to see their efforts become part of the operating procedure.

Clearly stating and communicating through policies, training, and visual management creates the written elements to establish a strong safety foundation to develop other safe operating procedures. By integrating your safety audits across all departments, you, in effect, train other team members to be risk-averse eyes and ears on the production floor. When employees embrace and give life to that culture, you have the elements for sustainability.

Using standardized process assessments and training that monitors performance keeps employees aware of hazards, correct procedures, and expectations. For example, a company can claim to have strong recycling policies, but if employees have not been trained on this policy and management does not do regular audits of policy effectiveness, then it wouldn’t be surprising to find that recyclable and non-recyclable materials were regularly mixed.

Companies in food manufacturing regularly use hazardous chemicals. As recently as April 2019, 38 people were hospitalized outside of Chicago after a container holding ammonia leaked during transport.2 Part of the operating policies must be that management and employees are aware of these chemicals and their hazards. With employee turnover, there is a continuous need to onboard and upskill employees to the hazard communication requirements. Having everyone receive consistent instruction to the same training level can help experienced workers coach newer employees and calibrate their eyes for compliance. In the continuous struggle for increasing sustainability and reducing risk, management can regularly evaluate for less hazardous chemicals and quantities to be substituted.

Ask the employees and contractors who are the experts working with and around hazards every day. Regular surveys of the workers will reveal some creative solutions from those who are challenged by the hazards on a daily basis. Ask employees to provide feedback through a survey the employees create, write and gain HR approval to send.3 Employee feedback is invaluable. Surveys that allow anonymous reporting are a great primer to get employees engaged by discovering and acting on employees’ concerns.

Another way to gather information is with daily huddles, where different team members actively participate. Effective employee engagement helps improve morale, quality and productivity. Another method for gaining and tracking feedback is through an escalation board where an employee can enter a safety concern on a visual management display in the work area. Everyone can see the concern and what the supervisor is doing to address the issue. If the issue is resolved, it can be closed out and monitored for effectiveness. If the supervisor is unable to resolve the concern after a specified period of time, depending on the seriousness of the hazard, then it is escalated up a level to the manager, senior manager, facility manager, and so on until the issue is either resolved or mitigated to a safe operational level.

There are several tools you can use to set a foundational knowledge base, including online safety training, which promotes organizational sustainability through consistency, convenience and customizable delivery methods. Ultimately, leveraging the entire leadership team to take even a small ownership role in your safety efforts is on the pathway for integrating safety into existing sustainability programs.



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