Are food factories & processing plants the new Coronavirus hot-spots?

A number of outbreaks in factories, particularly abattoirs, has put the spotlight once more on food companies, but this time their factories and processing plants. The newly implemented lockdown in Leicester shows that ‘hot spot’ outbreaks can cause entire cities to be closed down and cases in Germany have been centred around abattoirs and meat processing facilities.

We have a range of blogs detailing some of the health and safety and precautionary measures/risk assessments that should be undertaken, as well as guidance for food companies.

However, the number of outbreaks in larger food processing units means that it is worth risk assessments taking into account the particular context of workplace and workers.

Workplace Conditions

  • The environment of a workplace should be considered; cold wet environments can help preserve virus-infected droplets.
  • Furthermore, production lines can increase the spread of virus and with enclosed areas/production lines etc social distancing can be more difficult.
  • There may be the need to shout across the noise of heavy machinery, potentially projecting infected droplets.
  • Also, if shift patterns and teams are constantly changed making it harder to isolate by group, with shared facilities etc.
  • Travel between sites either from employees, sub-contractors or agents may also spread the virus further. Also where there are a number of visitors/deliveries to site from different areas this will create a high risk point at access that should be subject to specific assessment and controls.

There may be options whereby some of these conditions may be ameliorated i.e. ventilation, social distancing, sanitising facilities, face masks, teams kept in the same groupings, limited access to sites. The specific aspects put forward in links to guidance above should be utilised.

Employees/Contractors

  • Employee/contractor workplace testing may be important to mitigate against virus risks. However, it is crucial that such testing is compliant with data protection requirements to avoid falling foul of the legislation and potential large fines - as obtaining health data (even temperature readings) will constitute processing of special categories of personal data, which will require specific safeguards to be implemented beforehand.   
  • The ethnic make-up and housing environment of workers can facilitate the spread with reports of symptoms being more pronounced in certain BAME segments of the community.
  • Also, if housing is of a high intensity with shared public areas and transport. This may make a workforce more vulnerable to the spread of the virus.

Whilst some of these societal issues cannot be addressed directly by individual employers, the particular vulnerabilities of employees should be considered in risk assessments and there may be other options such as off-peak travel options, differing shift work etc that may be considered.

  • Large scale outbreaks can raise questions of workers feeling obliged to carry on working even if they are symptomatic. It may be that if sickness policies penalise staff they will seek to still come into work. The wider repercussions of these policies may need to be considered and/or regular checks on employees i.e. temperature checks etc.(subject to data protection and safeguarding as referenced above.)

Sub-Contractors

As a business, it is important to also consider your supply chains and sub-contractors, so that obligations are not simply passed down the supply chain. Depending on respective resources and expertise between the parties there will still be adverse ramifications for failure to ensure adequate working practices and health and safety compliance from a responsible supplier.

Additionally, those who contract with others for their product and/or services, have a £36 million or greater turnover and are doing business in the UK must prepare and publish an annual slavery and human trafficking statement as soon as practicable after the end of each financial year under the Modern Slavery Act 2015.   As part of the overall ethical concerns consideration of the conditions that contractor’s workers are operating under is likely to be the next key area of scrutiny. Furthermore, if a ‘hot spot’ occurs at any point throughout the supply chain there is likely to be a focus on working conditions that may have given rise to this.  The guidance around the Modern Slavery Act clarifies further: ‘the Act… does not mean that the organisation in question must guarantee that the entire supply chain is slavery free’. However, it does reference that ‘Organisations do still nevertheless have a legal duty to drive out poor labour practices in their business, and a moral duty to influence and incentivise continuous improvements in supply chains.’ This moral duty that will be underpinned more by public approbation than legal enforcement action but will still be critical for brands to ensure they are not linked with poor practices.

Companies will want to avoid the negative publicity that would come from being associated with a second surge or hot-spot and also demonstrate their commitment to ensuring safe working practices as far as possible throughout their supply chain.

If you require any further assistance with data protection matters, or if you would like a copy of a recently published article by our International Head of IT Law, Jagvinder Singh Kang (CIPP/E, CIPM), on Workplace Testing and Data Protection Implications, please feel free to email him: Jagvinder.SinghKang@Mills-Reeve.com

Queries on food regulatory and product liability matters should be addressed to Jessica Burt Jessica.Burt@Mills-Reeve.com and health and safety to Duncan Astill at Duncan.Astill@Mills-Reeve.com .

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