Research released last month shows food industry injuries and deaths spiked at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, prompting regulators to focus on historic problems in food production safety.
While pandemic-related pressures on food production and distribution led to an increase in injuries and deaths, there were problems before COVID-19 hit, the authors of the six-year study said.
The study, funded in part by the Nationwide Insurance Endowment for Safety & Health and compiled by professors from Penn State University and the University of Florida, looked at occupational injuries related to transport packaging and related product movements in the US food supply chain.
“The relevance of employee health and safety to the functioning of the food supply chain has recently been highlighted as product availability has not matched demand, largely due to occupational safety concerns,”; the researchers wrote. “This is one of many reasons why safety professionals and business management should be concerned about hazards facing workers in the food supply chain.”
Although unrelated, the study came out shortly after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced changes to the issuing of fines and citations in workplace investigations, and after the federal government announced it was hiring more than 200 new OSHA inspectors through 2021. In In late March, OSHA said it would begin adding a multiplier to fines.
“It makes little sense that the U.S. grocery chain has a higher risk of injury,” said Sonya Luisoni of San Francisco, senior risk services manager for the Safety National Casualty Corp.
Luisoni said U.S. food companies rely heavily on storing and transporting materials on pallets and using devices such as forklifts and pallet jacks, which likely contributed to increased injuries and deaths in the sector in recent years as production increased, especially during the pandemic. .
“These are always high-risk activities, especially because of the weight of what they’re carrying,” she said.
Many U.S. food companies have not invested in robotics or other safety technologies, she said.
“We have a lot of smaller companies doing a lot of this work that don’t have the money or the capital to invest in these systems,” Luisoni said.
The increased workload during the pandemic led to longer hours and more fatigue among workers, said TH Lyda, who leads the OSHA practice group at Pittsburgh-based law firm Burns White LLC.
Since the pandemic began, OSHA has launched several targeted enforcement programs, including a local emphasis program focusing on more than 1,400 food production manufacturing facilities in Illinois and Ohio, which saw higher-than-average worker injury rates.
The program was spurred by reports of deaths, amputations, fractures and broken hands and fingers in those two states between 2016 and 2020.
“Workers have the right to file a confidential safety and health complaint and request an OSHA inspection of their workplace if they believe there is a serious hazard or if they believe their employer is not following OSHA standards,” an OSHA spokeswoman said in a statement.
Mr. Lyda said food companies should expect “higher scrutiny” from the Department of Labor, which oversees OSHA.
Dave Crowley, vice president of environmental health and safety and sustainability for Lynnfield, Mass.-based dairy processing company HP Hood LLC, said the most common injuries seen in the food and beverage industry are musculoskeletal.
“Our accountability measures are focused on the leading indicators,” he said. “What do you do to prevent injuries from occurring?”