Safety first in the food sector

Employees within the food industry deal with potentially dangerous equipment on a daily basis. Without adequate training they are at risk from life-changing injuries or worse. Although accidents are not entirely preventable, one of the commonest reasons for these occurring in the food sector is a lack of adequate training on new equipment, with machinery accounting for a third of all fatalities in the sector.

In relation to non-fatal accidents, 75% is due to there being inadequate or no guarding of machines, and in 25% of cases accidents have occurred when cleaning was taking place. As operatives need easy access to machinery the choice of guarding is especially important. If you ever discover guards have been removed or interlocks defeated make sure you investigate. NEVER turn a blind eye

Employers' duties of care health & safety. However, the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) latest Food and Drink Bulletin reports on a number of recent prosecutions involving companies who have failed in protecting their employees, resulting in serious consequences and heavy fines.

Failure to comply with relevant legislation is highlighted by these cases

An Essex vegetable nursery has been ordered to pay nearly £19,000 after a worker’s arm was severed when it became jammed whilst feeding fibre sheeting into machinery. The investigation by the HSE revealed that safety precautions were not in place at the nursery and it had become ‘standard practice’ for workers to carry out work by hand, rather than using a machine, heightening the risk of becoming caught in the machine.

A leading food manufacturer was fined for serious safety failings after a worker’s hand was caught between a conveyor belt and roller on a newly-installed line. He suffered serious injuries to three fingers on his hand causing long term reduced movement. It was found that following installation no further assessments had been carried out and the employee had not been given specific instructions on the machinery. The investigation concluded that the company should have carried out thorough assessments to identify what safety measures were required. This led to a fine of £6000 for breaching health and safety regulations.

A Leeds-based chocolate and fudge manufacturer was fined after an employee sliced off her left thumb when cleaning a stirring machine. The employee was not trained on the machine and the HSE found that had simple preventative measures been in place, this incident could have been avoided. It is important to remember that it is not only operators of machinery that should be trained on the equipment but everyone who may have some interaction with it.

A large fresh produce company was fined over £200,000 after a worker died when he came into contact with a live electrical cable. The HSE concluded that the company had ‘plenty of opportunity’ to deal with the cables which they had always assumed were not live.

It is worth being aware that in extreme circumstances safety failings can result in criminal convictions and prison sentences. Following the death of an employee who was burnt alive in an industrial oven, a manufacturing company was convicted of corporate manslaughter and fined £200,000. The technical director was also fined £25,000 and given a nine-month prison sentence, which was suspended for two years.

Action - take positive action to not only to achieve but maintain an improvement in your health and safety performance

Management - it’s crucial you have effective management of your health and safety - from the top down. Make sure responsibility for health and safety is part of your culture.

Improvement - enforcing authorities expect you to be able to illustrate you have a sustained and systematic approach. Don’t ignore any warnings they may give your or improvements they suggest - it may come back to haunt you! You should have a plan in place, continually measure your performance, investigate accidents and learn from your mistakes. Don’t let breaches in your policy become standard practice.

Workforce - engage your workforce. It is important you have safety/employee representatives and that you listen to them, particularly when you are carrying out your risk assessments and reviewing your arrangements as they can help you to identify unsafe practices. You should also be mindful of any foreign workers as they may not be able to speak or understand English to the same level or indeed at all. You must pay special attention to their needs and ensure they understand what is required of them, and the importance of health and safety in the workplace. You may need to consider translating training documents, using visual aids or providing bilingual training if necessary.

The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.