A recent project highlighted the importance of considering the safety of the maintenance team in food facilities.
Maintenance is one of the workplace activities that can affect health and safety not only of the workers directly involved, but also of other workers if safe procedures are not followed and the work is not done properly. When we consider health and safety hazards in a food facility we often only think about the production employees but what about the safety of those maintaining equipment?
Scientific studies indicate that occupational diseases and work-related health problems (such as asbestosis, cancer, hearing problems and musculoskeletal disorders) are also more prevalent among workers involved in maintenance activities. Working alone or at night are more likely to arise from the need to make urgent repairs during a call out. Food processing operations can be very hazardous! 66% of accidents caused by machinery in the biscuit manufacturing industry in one European study occurred during cleaning and maintenance.
So, what are the risks to the maintenance team and how can the production team make sure their colleagues are safe when supporting them in maintaining their equipment?
During the cleaning or maintenance of production machinery, workers may be exposed to hazardous substances such as disinfectants and lubricants (hot and cold fluids), and ammonia in refrigeration systems. Lubricants, greases, oils and hydraulic fluids are needed to protect machinery and moving parts against wear and corrosion and to prevent high temperatures caused by friction. Lubricants may pose a health risk to workers involved in maintenance tasks. They can provoke allergic reactions such as dermatitis or breathing problems.
Maintenance workers in the food manufacturing industry are likely to be exposed to biological agents such as: Salmonella bacteria. These can occur in slaughtering or meat processing applications, in dairies, fish and seafood processing plants or in places where vegetables that were grown using organic fertilisers are handled. Hepatitis A virus is a potential hazard in places where mussels, oysters, shell-fish or salads that are produced using organic fertilisers are handled.
Workers involved in maintenance may also come into contact with wastewater and effluent during maintenance activities. Wastewater may contain organic matter such as starch, sugars and proteins, fats, oils, grease but it can also contain biological agents, acids, caustic soda, disinfectants and other harmful chemicals.
In the food and beverage manufacturing explosions and fires can arise because of flammable dust and can have devastating and irreversible effects. Dust from flour, grain, custard powder, instant coffee, sugar, dried milk, potato powder and soup powder are examples of highly combustible dusts. A suitable ignition source, e.g. an electrical spark which may occur when pulling a plug out of a socket or a hot surface (e.g. 300°C to 600°C) may cause an explosion.
Dust can also cause respiratory problems such as occupational asthma as well as irritations of eyes, nose and skin (occupational dermatitis).
Slips, trips and falls are the main causes of accidents in the food and beverage industry. Slip injuries, in particular, happen more mostly due to wet or contaminated and greasy floors (e.g. with food).
By considering each other in the process of maintenance, we can improve teamwork and keep everyone safe.