There is a need for robust personal protective equipment (PPE) to help protect  employees working in the food and beverage industry. WILLIAM GEORGE looks at the importance of PPE in this industry.

In 2016, the United States Department of Labour’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Schwan’s Global Supply Chain, a supplier of frozen speciality foods, more than US$ 172 000 (over R2 million) after two employees suffered amputations, and one suffered burns and cuts at one of the company’s facilities.

Judy Freeman, OSHA area director, says: “Each year, thousands of workers like these suffer amputation and other injuries that are preventable when basic safeguards are in place and proper procedures are followed.”

South Africa has recently experienced one of the largest outbreaks of listeriosis worldwide, which puts more emphasises on the importance of health safety in the food and beverage industry. This demonstrates that a lack of proper controls can result in health hazards for both employees and consumers.

According to a Stats SA survey, the food and beverage industry employed 174 601 people in 2015, indicating an increase of seven percent, from the last survey conducted by Stats SA in 2012. The sector with the highest number of employees (104 352) was restaurants and coffee shops, and the sector which showed a substantial increase in employment was that of takeaway and fast-food outlets, where  some 15 000 jobs were created.

The employees in this industry are exposed to hazards including heavy machinery, slippery working conditions, heating and cooling devices, noise, and environmental hazards. Therefore, they need PPE that will help to ensure and maintain their safety, as well as that of the food and beverages they handle.

The Department of Labour (DoL) notes that the common causes of occupational health hazards in the food and beverage industry, include:

• Musculoskeletal disorders affecting the body movements;

• Occupational asthma, which is caused by inhalation of bakery and grain dust;

• Occupational dermatitis from handwashing (especially with harsh soaps);

• Rhinitis caused by irritants such as flour and grain dusts, spices and seasonings; and

• Noise, which could result in hearing loss.

According to PPE supplier and developer Du Pont: “Controlling a broad variety of bacteria is a major challenge in complex food systems sold via long supply chains.

“Food protection covers a combination of physical, chemical and biological hurdles to control both spoilage and pathogenic microorganisms and extend shelf life, while complying with microbial safety policies.”

The company offers PPE tailored for employees in the food and beverage industry, including  that which  provides protection against cuts and abrasions, fire, noise as well as liquid, gas and chemical hazards.

The DoL suggests ways in which the food and beverage industry can manage risks in the workplace, as follows:

• Identify which tasks present a serious risk of severe injury, for example, repetitive upper-body work;

• Assess these tasks in detail to decide what factors lead to the risk;

• Introduce mechanisation where this is reasonably practicable, such as powered trucks, conveyors, vacuum lifters, bulk handling or automation;

• Where mechanisation is not possible, introduce measures to prevent injury by reducing weights of sacks or boxes, improve ergonomic design of work stations and work areas, implement job rotation, undertake training, introduce medical surveillance and job transfer.

Alternatively, companies can consult with the trade union safety representatives or other worker representatives to ensure effective and workable solutions to safety problems.

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