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7 Common Safety Mistakes in Food Plants

Posted on March 22, 2016

Safety. Ask any food manufacturer what’s top of mind these days, and that’s what they’ll say. While much of the emphasis is on the safety of food products (especially with the Food Safety Modernization Act coming into play), the safety of the workers who make those products has seen more attention the past several years.

Last spring, Ken Wengert, then Director of Safety and Environmental at Kraft and current Director at Large of the American Society of Safety Engineers, told Business Insurance magazine: “We have had improved safety performance year over year for the past 20 years, but our rate of improvement has improved dramatically over the past five,” largely due to process improvements and better technology.

But the food industry still has a ways to go. In 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the incidence rate of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses in food manufacturing was 5.1 per 100 full-time workers, which was higher than for manufacturing as a whole (4.0) and for all industries combined (3.4). With roughly 1.5 million people employed in food manufacturing, that works out to about 76,500 injuries.

Fortunately, as Wengert pointed out, process improvements and better technologies can help food manufacturers improve their safety records.

Here are seven common safety mistakes in food plants — and how to avoid them.

1. Underestimating the risk of combustible dust

On February 7, 2008, 14 people were killed and 38 injured in an explosion and fire at an Imperial Sugar refinery. This event prompted regulatory agencies to revisit their policies and procedures surrounding combustible dust.

A typical combustible dust explosion has two phases: an initial explosion within the processing equipment, followed by a secondary explosion caused by additional dust igniting and dispersing into the air. It’s this secondary explosion that causes most of the damage.

The food industry is particularly susceptible to these types of explosions. Virtually every ingredient used in food has the potential to become combustible dust, especially sugars, flours, starches, and spices.

The best way to mitigate this risk in your facility is to use proper housekeeping procedures, equipment, and controls.

Both the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) and OSHA take a hard line on combustible dust. NFPA 652 is a new standard that provides general requirements for managing combustible dust fires and explosions across all industries, processes, and dust types. It applies to all facilities and operations that manufacture, process, blend, convey, repackage, generate, or handle combustible dusts or combustible particulate solids. This includes food plants.

Specifically, NFPA 652 requires facilities to:

  • test their dust to determine its combustibility or explosibility;
  • conduct a dust hazard analysis; and
  • develop a plan to manage the hazard(s). That plan must include proper housekeeping.

OSHA recommends several dust control strategies, including:

  • Implement a hazardous dust inspection, testing, housekeeping, and control program;
  • Use proper dust collection systems and filters;
  • If ignition sources are present, use cleaning methods that do not generate dust clouds; and
  • Use only vacuum cleaners approved for dust collection.

Learn more in the OSHA Fact Sheet: Hazard Alert: Combustible Dust Explosions.

2. Ignoring ergonomics

According to a report by the California Department of Industrial Relations, musculoskeletal disorders are one of the most common types of injuries in the food processing industry. These disorders, which include everything from muscle strains to tendonitis and sciatica, are the result of awkward body positions and repetitive tasks.

Over time, these conditions can not only cause debilitating injuries for workers, but they can also cost companies significantly in medical expenses, workers’ compensation insurance premiums, and low employee morale. In 2013, musculoskeletal disorders accounted for a full third of all worker injury and illness cases.

Fortunately, they can be prevented through ergonomics. According to OSHA, ergonomics essentially means “designing the job to fit the worker, rather than physically forcing the worker’s body to fit the job.”

The OSHA website provides guidelines for preventing musculoskeletal injuries in several areas of food processing, including poultry processing and meatpacking. They also outline the major components of an ergonomics program, from problem identification to training and evaluation.

For a few simple things you can do right now, check out these five tips from Certified Professional Ergonomist Laura Dietrich. As she notes, small changes can lead to big improvements, like raising pallets off of the ground so that workers don’t have to bend more than 90 degrees to pick things up. Even performing preventive maintenance on cart wheels so they’re easier to maneuver can make a world of difference.

3. Being lax about personal protective equipment

Personal Protective Equipment

Personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves, goggles, and aprons, can greatly reduce workers’ exposure to harmful substances and environments. But only if workers actually wear them.

Last year, sanitation expert Chris Calusta told Food Safety magazine that “although facilities will conduct annual training on PPE, at some point during the year, trainees neglect to use gloves or goggles when working with sanitation products. When you are lax about PPE, you put employees’ safety at risk and you take the chance of seriously affecting workers’ compensation costs.”

This problem is not limited to the use of sanitation products. PPE should be worn while working with many types of equipment as well. The solution is to be vigilant about the use of PPE in your facility, not just during training and inspection time, but all of the time.  

4. Not implementing a lockout/tagout program

Last year, OSHA’s Lockout/Tagout Standard (1910.147) was the fifth most frequently cited violation across industries as a whole. For food manufacturing, as has been the case for a couple of years, it was #1, costing companies an average of $3,670 per violation.

In 2014, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) challenged the food manufacturing industry to prioritize worker safety by implementing a lockout/tagout, or LO/TO, program. In a Q&A for Food Manufacturing, safety expert Heather Marenda identified four components of a successful LO/TO program:

  • Procedures should be machine specific and graphical in nature, providing step-by-step instructions.
  • Procedures and signage should be multi-lingual.
  • Procedures should be available locally and posted where employees can see them.
  • Companies should provide training, including yearly refreshers.

5. Not providing enough training

Employee training is key to avoiding every one of the safety mistakes on this list, as well as the many that didn’t make the list. Training is also associated with higher product quality, better food safety, and many other positive results.

However, responses to the most recent Food Manufacturing survey suggest that many companies don’t provide enough training.

  • Only 53% of companies providing ongoing training. The remaining 47% provide only a few days to a few weeks.
  • While 90% provide equipment-specific training, only 83% provide industrial safety training.
  • The biggest obstacle to training, cited by 51% of respondents, is lack of time.

Your food manufacturing environment is only as safe as the people working in it. Providing regular, ongoing training for everyone in your facility will improve your operations across the board.

6. Not creating a safety culture


Like training, plant safety isn’t something you do just once. It needs to be a part of your workplace culture. And that culture needs to start at the highest level of your organization.

In an article entitled “Cultivating a Culture of Safety in Food and Beverage Plants,” Food Processing Managing Editor Kevin T. Higgins writes:

“As with food safety, worker safety begins with a commitment from the top. The absence of a top-down approach will doom improvement programs, which will flounder from a lack of direction and resources. With management’s support, employee safety committees and internal audit recommendations will flourish.”

In a safety culture, companies constantly strive for continuous improvement and employees know that their safety is more important than keeping lines running at all costs.

7. Failing to learn from past mistakes

Dame Judith Hackitt, chair of the U.K. Health and Safety Executive famously said, “There are no new accidents, only old accidents repeated by new people.”

In 2014, David W.K. Acheson, the former Chief Medical Officer at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, called for the food industry to learn from past mistakes when it comes to recalls and food safety. The same wisdom applies to plant safety — companies can look to their mistakes and the mistakes of others to guide their actions into the future. By doing this, food processors can take a proactive approach to prevent safety problems from happening in the first place.

Nilfisk can help you improve your plant safety by keeping your facilities clean. View our full line of vacuums for food processing facilities.