Cultivating a Culture of Safety in Food and Beverage Plants

The financial benefits of reducing on-the-job injuries are clear, but there’s a bigger payoff from continuous improvement in worker safety.

The good news in workplace injuries and fatalities in general and in food and beverage manufacturing in particular is that rates are continuing a slow, steady decline. The bad news is that 46 food workers died last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and another 76,900 food, beverage and tobacco workers were injured seriously enough to require time away from work.

Whether an organization responds best to a carrot or a stick, there's a strong case for cultivating a safety culture. Breeches in workplace safety don’t generate the costs or negative publicity of a food safety event, but the dollars and cents are significant.

Insurance underwriters take a dim view of unnecessarily dangerous work environments, and too many recordable injuries and lost-time events will keep a company off everybody’s best-places-to-work list. Virtually every corporate social responsibility report includes an employee health and safety section that lays out in cold, hard numbers the corporation’s success or failure in lowering injury rates.

Metrics such as OSHA incident rate are unblinking report cards of outcomes, but they don’t shed light on the best practices in safeguarding workers’ health. Food products are produced in industrial environments with inherent dangers. Defensive measures to minimize risk are necessary, but continuous improvement requires proactive steps, such as investigation of near-miss events.

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.

As manager of safety and employee relations, Francisco Olivarez credits Ocean Mist Farms' segment-leading results to the involvement of top managers and an owner who sits on the safety board of the produce firm. Worker and food safety are placed on equal footing, and the Castroville, Calif., firm was the 2013 winner of AgSafe’s All Ways Safe award for large packing houses. At peak hours, 33 lift trucks weave through the processing and shipping areas of the facility. In mid-June, the facility marked 303 accident-free days. “Safety is a continuous effort and challenge to improve,” says Olivarez.

The U.S.’s largest grower of artichokes, Ocean Mist harvests, packs and ships a wide variety of produce in the self-proclaimed Salad Bowl of the World, a.k.a. Monterey County, where the majority of U.S. leaf and head lettuce and a plurality of broccoli, spinach and other crops are grown. Safeguarding field workers is important, although the danger level is higher after the harvest. Heavy machinery and fast-moving transport vehicles are ubiquitous at the Castroville plant.

The valley pioneered transcontinental shipments of vegetables, packing them in ice for rail transport, and that method still is in use. But shipping ice can be less economical than advanced cooling technologies, and East Coast customers are choosing options such as Ocean Mist’s vacuum cooling with ammonia refrigeration to get crops below 40°F. “There’s a hazard with ammonia, and you do all you can to minimize the risk of leaks,” Olivarez notes.

A HACCP approach is taken to worker safety. “When we have an incident, we do a thorough investigation and analysis of how it happened and what we do to prevent it in the future,” he explains. Rather than fear OSHA, the company invites the agency to inspect the facility and review programs and practices, turning a potentially adversarial relationship into a consultative one.

The company has a second cooling facility in Coachella, Calif., with operations shifting between the two during the year. Before operations resume in either one, forklift drivers undergo two days of training, regardless of their years of tenure. More than 100 cameras throughout the Castroville facility support enforcement of safety rules. If a driver is recorded operating an overloaded lift truck, the videotape holds the driver to account.

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