Since the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping across the globe earlier this year, food manufacturing and processing facilities have been among the most impacted industries worldwide.
Often forced to stay open as essential businesses, plants faced some of the most challenging situations they have ever seen – implementing a variety of safety precautions, social distancing, procedure changes, and other adjustments without significant planning or notice. Food processing plants in particular have been a major source of COVID 19 outbreaks, both in the United States and elsewhere.
Even as the food manufacturing world gets more used to its “new normal,” the continued spread of COVID-19 – not to mention the potential for another disease in the future – it’s clear that several of the measures implemented in response to the coronavirus are here to stay.
Regardless of the type of food packaging taking place at a particular facility, it’s clear that enhanced personal protective equipment (PPE) guidelines are likely to become the norm in the coming weeks and months.
The incredible supply and demand imbalance around N95 masks and other equipment which appeared in the healthcare space during the peaks of the pandemic have showed how quickly stockpiles of these materials can be depleted. Moving forward, it is likely that more food companies will take a more strategic approach to stocking these kinds of items.
The wave of newly installed hand sanitizer stations is also something which is unlikely to go away in the near or medium-term. Even though food manufacturing and processing facilities were already “ahead of the curve” in the realm of sanitation, the pendulum has continued to push toward an even greater level of rigidity. This is especially true for common areas or shared spaces where social distancing is not an option.
The implementation of social distancing – a phrase which largely hadn’t even entered the lexicon until March of this year – is something which facilities are also looking to implement through the use of conveyors and other automated equipment.
The use of conveyors is two-fold. First, if the layout of the plant allows it, installing short-run conveyors allows product to move from station to station (and person to person) while keeping the recommended 6 feet of distance between workers. Companies should also look to map a traffic pattern around the facility to help minimize the potential for the spread of potential pathogens among employees.
Manual processes often involve multiple people working in close proximity to package products. The addition of automated packaging equipment – such as vertical form fill seal baggers, multihead scales, or other machines – may allow companies to shift those workers to other parts of the operation which can be accomplished remotely or in a more social distancing-compliant setting.
This type of shift allows companies to maximize the value of people who have already proven themselves to be valued teammates – deploying them to their highest and best use in the organization.
At minimum, companies that continue to use manual or semi-automated packaging processes should implement staggered shifts where possible in an attempt to minimize direct contact between employees.
However, the most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – or any illness – within a food plant is to take steps which attempt to keep employees who may be ill away from the facility altogether.
In response to the coronavirus, many facilities have found great utility in the use of no-contact thermometers to ensure that employees coming into work are healthy. That is a necessary step in the current environment, but may not be sustainable indefinitely. A more long-lasting change may require companies to reevaluate their sick and leave time policies with an eye toward encouraging employees who feel ill to stay away from the facility and seek medical treatment.
This type of shift will likely involve a great deal of discussion between HR leaders and other teams to find the best way forward to create a culture which prioritizes employee health and wellness – as a means to keeping a facility operating at full capacity. This type of approach may include expanded cross-training or other initiatives to ensure employees can operate a variety of packaging machines or other processes on a given day.
There can be no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has caused a massive change in how our society and businesses operate. The companies which use these changes as a way to create longer-term improvements to their operations and improve efficiency may be in the best position to expand further in the future.