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Knowledge at Work - UL Workplace Health & Safety

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Workplace Safety

It’s safer to eat the product than it is to work in many food manufacturing facilities

April 07, 2014 - Posted by Dr. Scott Harris

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While the safety and quality of food produced in the food manufacturing industry (NAICS 311) is generally quite high, worker safety is far less so.

Food manufacturing employed 1.8 percent (1.5 million) of the U.S. workforce across 29,474 establishments in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Annual wages for the industry that year totaled $61.5 billion, for an average of just over $42,000 per worker. The average for all U.S. workers in 2012 was $49,200.

In 2012, food manufacturers:

  • posted a total recordable injury rate of 5.4 compared to the U.S. average of 3.4
  • reported a days away, restrictions and transfers (DART) rate of 3.4, nearly double the U.S. average of 1.8 for private industry
  • suffered 18,620 lost-time injuries and 41 fatalities in 2012

The most common non-fatal injuries were sprains and strains to the hand, back and shoulder from blunt contact (containers) and falls. The median length of absence for a lost-time injury was nine days, with 28 percent of cases out for 31 or more days.

At an average $76,000 each, those lost-time injuries cost the industry just over $1.4 billion (direct and indirect) and at least 242,010 lost work days. Even at an optimistic 10 percent assumed profit, $14.1 billion in additional sales were needed to recover that loss, forfeiting 2.6 percent of annual sales across the industry based on transaction values cited in the 2008 Department of Commerce Industry Report: Food Manufacturing NAICS 311.

OSHA inspects food manufacturing at a relatively high rate and issues penalties nearly 50 percent higher than the average for other industries. In 2013, the industry received 1,773 inspections, comprising about 1.8 percent of all state and federal-OSHA inspections done that year. The 2,866 citations issued resulted in $6.2 million in penalties, led by violations of lockout/tagout, process safety management, machine guarding, electrical, machine power transmission, powered industrial trucks and hazard communication standards. Penalties averaged $2,147 versus the U.S. average of $1,544.

Among all food manufacturing sites, 119 received letters from OSHA in 2013 related to high DART injury rates (ranging from 3-24), with 75 of those posting rates high enough to trigger mandatory targeted inspections, including manufacturing sites with DARTs at or above 7.0.

Food for thought

Despite continued high losses, worker safety in food manufacturing does not seem to attract the business attention it merits. For example, the referenced Department of Commerce Industry Report cites major issues challenging the industry including rising commodity prices, food safety, energy costs, corporate responsibility and environmental sustainability. However, it doesn’t mention injuries, fatalities or worker safety – not once. Perhaps worker safety is implied as part of corporate responsibility and sustainability, but in my experience this is not always the case.

Hundreds of thousands of lost work days and $1.4 billion lost to injuries are not going away without a fundamental shift in how food manufacturing manages safety. The sustainable solution is developing a culture of safety. It’s a lifestyle change for the organization that starts with an absolute commitment to safety, then going after the data.

Here are four recommendations:

  • Start with a job hazard analysis to better understand work activities that cause losses.
  • Measure and track everything you can through a formal incident management system (IMS) that promotes early reporting and intervention.
  • Be proactive and use the IMS to capture and investigate observations and near misses with the same resolve as if they were injuries. These “leading indicators” are warning signs and are your best chance to improve the process and prevent injuries and illnesses.
  • Commit to continual improvement and use these data to get there with no retaliation for reporting, especially for concerns you do not like hearing about.

 Asking everyone on the team to step up and help improve workplace safety will not succeed unless the process is credible, transparent and positive.