Australia's meat and poultry food production sector is regarded as essential to the nation’s wellbeing by the country’s federal and state governments. During the ongoing pandemic meat products continue to be in high demand and to maintain continuous supply food production companies need to be confident they can prevent and mitigate any contamination threats.
When Australia faced its first wave of COVID-19 community transmission in Victoria from January 2020 meat works were the first industrial businesses to be hit. Four separate meat processing plants, along with some smaller businesses, were significantly impacted by onsite outbreaks restricting production, causing a public health emergency and putting pressure on other businesses to meet consumer demand.
Recently The British Medical Journal has called meat plants the “new front line” in the COVID-19 pandemic, as food processing plants in general are high risk environments for transmission. Workplaces are crowded, shifts typically up to 12 hours, social distancing can be challenging and the virus thrives in lower temperatures.
Crucially, metallic surfaces can retain live viruses for longer than those of other materials. It has been suggested that in some conditions the COVID-19 virus can remain viable on common surfaces, such as those used for food packaging, for up to 28 days, however, this has not been scientifically proven at this point.
Controlling the risk of transmitting infection requires a systematic and comprehensive approach to planning and implementing risk mitigation and safety management.
Below we provide key guidelines and response protocols for managing the risks:
- Guidelines for managing risks in meat processing and manufacturing facilities
- Legal obligations for maintaining a safe work environment
- Contamination response for abattoirs and meat processing businesses
- Having the right insurance cover supports manufacturers managing contamination risks
Guidelines for managing risks in meat processing and manufacturing facilities
While there is currently no scientific evidence that people can catch COVID-19 from food or food packaging, according to the World Health Organization, contamination presents a serious risk for industry workers, their colleagues and their families.
To manage the issue of surface contamination it’s necessary to implement protocols that address the site risks. The New South Wales Government has provided guidelines for abattoirs and meat and poultry processing plants as a basis for developing a comprehensive safety plan, with a downloadable template.
A starting point is dividing the facility into its separate areas of activity and introducing controls to manage ingress and egress. This also applies to visitors to the facility including suppliers and delivery drivers who should remain in their vehicles if possible or be restricted to specific areas.
The business’s safety plan should also designate the number of people that can safely work in each space, the duration of the shift, social distancing wearing of appropriate protective gear (including visors where social distancing isn’t achievable) and scheduled cleaning and disinfection with particular attention to common touchpoints such as door handles. Your staff’s means of travelling to and from work should also be considered for inclusion in safety protocols. The WorkSafe Victoria website has a list of social distancing measures developed specifically for the meat and poultry processing industry.
A staff education program that includes induction training reinforced with regular messaging, signing and safety huddles is a necessary part of maintaining workplace safety standards, and these should also be monitored by designated supervisors in each area.
Legal obligations for maintaining a safe work environment
Beyond ensuring mandatory workers’ compensation policies are in place to respond to workers who have contracted COVID-19 in the workplace employers will also need to ensure they are meeting their WHS/OHS obligations.
This includes requirements to
- identify risks and hazards
- provide a safe working environment
- necessary information
- training, instruction or supervision
- monitor the health of their employees
- provide health and safety information, including in languages other than English.
In the event a risk is identified it should be eliminated. If it is not possible it needs to be reduced as much as is reasonably practicable.
For COVID-19 risks businesses should consider
- hazard Identification and risk assessment plans to help create safe systems of work
- ensuring there is adequate training and communication to employees (such as correct application of PPE), including workers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds
- advanced approaches in sanitisation and cleaning of the workplace
- review and monitoring of the work environment including airflow and filtration
- safety climate surveys to identify any mental health hazards and the provision of relevant mental health support for workers and managers.
The Gallagher Workplace Risk team offers an end to end risk management service including site visits, analysis, recommendations and advice to businesses in the manufacturing sector.
Contamination response for abattoirs and meat processing businesses
If a worker develops COVID-19 the business’s response needs to be fast and thorough, following a prepared safety plan and each action documented to provide a check reference and comprehensive report.
“When entering a facility that has had a COVID-19 outbreak it is critical to treat everything within the premises as contaminated,” says commercial sanitation provider SaniKleen’s Marketing & Business Development manager Jarrod Collinson. The company was called in to decontaminate Victoria’s most serious abattoir infection cluster and has also provided infection control services to the Australian Defence Force.
The clean-up crew should get into their PPE before entering the building and dispose of it at a biohazard collection point when leaving the site, he advises.
A deep clean should aim to eliminate the COVID-19 viral load in both the air and on hard surfaces. To achieve this industrial-strength sanitisers need to be applied systematically in all the amenities and production areas in a sequence that ensures no recontamination from unsanitised areas can occur.
Once again the process should be documented and a safety plan prepared for submission for approval by the relevant authorities.
For food production operations insurance concerns around operations and consumer and worker safety focus on contamination mitigation policies and procedures, Gallagher Head of Food Production Stephen Elms says.
“What insurers want to see is how quickly a business will be able to respond to a COVID related contamination. The establishment of a comprehensive COVID plan that outlines the procedures around shut down, the thorough cleaning process to eliminate the virus, the stringent re-testing of personnel and the re-opening of the facility is paramount these days.”
He says businesses that have experienced a contamination case in the past can expect scrutiny at renewal time on what they have learned to prevent it happening again. “That requires having documented procedures that specifically address that risk.”
How we can help
Input from specialised advisory services can provide valuable mitigation strategies and practical approaches to responding to potential exposures. Our food production insurance specialists can assist with advice and recommendations for effective risk management in support of your insurance cover.
Gallagher provides insurance, risk management and benefits consulting services for clients in response to both known and unknown risk exposures. When providing analysis and recommendations regarding potential insurance coverage, potential claims and/or operational strategy in response to national emergencies (including health crises), we do so from an insurance and/or risk management perspective, and offer broad information about risk mitigation, loss control strategy and potential claim exposures. We have prepared this commentary and other news alerts for general information purposes only and the material is not intended to be, nor should it be interpreted as, legal or client-specific risk management advice. General insurance descriptions contained herein do not include complete insurance policy definitions, terms and/or conditions, and should not be relied on for coverage interpretation. The information may not include current governmental or insurance developments, is provided without knowledge of the individual recipient’s industry or specific business or coverage circumstances, and in no way reflects or promises to provide insurance coverage outcomes that only insurance carriers’ control.
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