Some key stakeholders in the food production facilities aren’t allowed to go to work, and must stay at home to comply with state or local orders. Another way to enforce social distancing in those plants is to encourage any personnel who can work from home to do so. As meat plants continue to shut down, food supply gets wasted, food sector workers get sick or are even afraid to clock into their shifts, two things remain of concern: Food Supply + Safety. In our neighboring State of California, Governor Gavin Newsom last month officially announced paid sick leave benefits for food sector workers in California impacted by COVID-19.
Via email interview, In Business Magazine took a look into some of the challenges in food and beverage plant operations.
“There’s no escaping the news, right? The COVID-19 virus is classified as a global pandemic and will permeate our daily lives, including how we run our food and beverage facilities. As the number of cases continues to climb, U.S. food and beverage manufacturers are facing a very new reality,” observes Brian Sharp, president and founder of SafetyChain. His company has developed three solutions to mitigate the effects on food and beverage facilities, addressing the multiple needs of improving yield, maximizing productivity and ensuring compliance for food and beverage manufacturers. SafetyChain’s plant management platform was designed to ensure only the absolutely most-essential personnel are on site while others manage remotely, thus limiting the number of people in the facility. Even plant managers can work from home by accessing the platform, which provides real-time updates into plant operations. Managers can even perform record reviews and USDA, PCQI, and other essential sign-offs from anywhere via their preferred devices.
“Increasingly, we’ve been helping our customers tackle the challenges posed by restrictions for social distancing and symptom screening due to COVID-19,” Sharp says. For instance, Bill Brodegard, director of Food Safety at Schwan’s, is using SafetyChain to monitor the pulse of the plants that he doesn’t have physical access to due to restrictions. From the platform, he can view the Environmental Monitoring and GMP audits for which he’d normally have to travel. Thinking toward the future, he’s preparing for the possibility of requesting virtual audits to remotely assess his 600-plus supplier locations in the weeks or months to come. Says Brodegard, “Schwan’s is dedicated to delivering high standards for taste and quality to our customers, and being able to keep operations like this running smoothly is essential to that core value.”
David Acheson, M.D., a former FDA Associate Commissioner for Foods and currently CEO of The Acheson Group, a global food safety consulting group he founded, points out that absenteeism due to COVID-19 illness, potential symptoms, or care for children or ill family members has reduced the labor force for many food companies. “Because of this, the hiring of temporary workers has increased, and some food facilities have closed down lines and/or have moved workers around to cover essential lines. The virus also has increased work in some areas as companies have had to develop protocols and practices for key elements of employee protection, including wellness screening of employees, six-food social distancing and hygiene, enhanced cleaning and disinfection, and use of non-surgical masks.”
This has a very large impact on the availability of skilled workers in food facilities. Through all the layoffs stemming from the economic standstill, food manufacturers and grocery workers are reporting increases in hiring to help keep up with demand – and to mitigate the effects of sick employees going on quarantine for two weeks. Albertson’s, a large food grocery chain store, has reported that it was hiring for 2,000 positions, according to Sharp.
To maintain production, Dr. Acheson notes, many companies are hiring temp workers, cross-training employees, and giving more hours to part-time workers. “Some of those who had provided bulk product for foodservice have switched at least some of that production to consumer-packaged product instead to maintain food supply where it is currently most needed.”
But hiring temporary workers is only half the battle, says Sharp. “The task of training people who may have never worked in grocery or food manufacturing has become more critical in the face of new demands on sanitation and social distancing. It’s no longer a case of a new employee showing up for work and shadowing another employee or supervisor. Technology can close the gap, especially in food production where the regulations and safety standards require strict adherence to processes.” He shares the experience of Erica Wade, vice president of Quality Operations for RiceWrap Foods, a North Carolina based company that produces rice goods in bulk through an innovative method, who reported, “I was able to train a new employee in a week, which is amazing.”
Says Dr. Acheson, “Using technology such as online training can be very beneficial in getting new and temp workers up to speed while ensuring that the six-foot social distancing is maintained, and alleviating the need for a room full of new workers. Remote training by external subject experts also can be a way to enable temp workers to onboard quickly, in some cases, even from their homes prior to coming into the facility.”