Employees of commissaries and other food production facilities do not have easy jobs. Heavy lifting, repetitive motions and working around heavy automated machinery introduces countless potentially dangerous situations for employees. 

Keeping those employees as safe as possible is always paramount in operating such a facility.

“There’s always a balance between the ability to produce product on a machine and doing it quickly and efficiently,” says John Bieri, vice president of sales, global retail, for ITW Food Equipment Group, which counts Hobart, Baxter, Vulcan, Bonnet, Traulsen and more as its brands. “But worker safety is always top on the list. It has to be top on the list.”  

John Bieri, ITW Food Equipment Group

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), businesses spend $170 billion every year on costs associated with occupational injuries and illnesses. Furthermore, a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report says more than 67,000 food preparation and serving workers hurt themselves on the job badly enough to lose at least a day of work per year. Nearly 20 percent of those workers missed 31 or more days of works. That adds up in expenditures that come straight out of company profits.

“We stress that you have to have ongoing emphasis that safety is first,” says consultant Lewis Shaye. “If you keep it top-of-mind and you talk about accidents and how you can prevent them and have that safety dialogue and coaching sessions on a daily basis, that’s really important. When you get the right equipment, the right training and the right kind of pre-planning, you’ve got the chemistry for success.”

Updated standards

“We use a lot of manual labor, so we’re constantly dealing with carpal tunnel, strained backs,” David Hipenbecker, senior director of engineering for Hostess Brands and committee member for the Z50 Safety & Sanitation Committee, told Baking & Snack. “Bakers have faced the whole ergonomics issue for years. We want to eliminate repetitive motion as much as we can.”

Protecting the workforce from potential equipment and environment risks is in the best interest of not just individual bakeries but also the industry at large.

“We all have a responsibility to ensure the safety of our associates and our products,” says Rowdy Brixey, president, Brixey Engineering, Safety & Training, and member, Z50 Safety & Sanitation Committee. “No one benefits from any of us having a food safety event. That’s why it’s so important that all the baking companies and equipment manufacturers participate in ensuring that we have a relevant standard and also a reference in how we install, build and maintain our processing equipment because everyone loses if there’s a problem.”

In 1943, the American Society of Bakery Engineers (ASB) held a general conference that led to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) establishing the Z50 Committee. With the ASB as secretariat, it developed and approved a standard of safety in 1947. That standard has been revised and replaced multiple times throughout its history to keep up with the needs of a changing industry. Today, the industry follows two ANSI standards, the Z50.1 Safety Standards and the Z50.2 Sanitation Standards.

“It is intended to provide guidance in safe design for the equipment manufacturer and guidance for the baker to help ensure they maintain their equipment safely and to provide operational instruction to the employee,” explained Jon Anderson, JRA Occupational Safety Consulting. Anderson serves alongside with Hipenbecker and Brixey on the Z50 Safety & Sanitation Committee.

This year, the Z50.1 Safety Standards are up for review again by the committee, a review that happens every five years to ensure the document is relevant to the industry. The aim is to give the baking industry the most useful reference guide possible to keep workers and food safe.

Evolving safety needs

From manual production with bakers tending to every step of the process to fully automated production lines running with minimal human interaction, the baking industry and its operations have changed dramatically. With each technological innovation has come the question, “How does this impact worker and food safety?” The baking industry has adapted to these changes well to create a generally safe environment for its employees.

“Bakeries have done an exceptional job of making sure their plants are safe,” says Phil Domenicucci, baking systems manager, AMF Bakery Systems, and vice-chairman, Z50 Safety & Sanitation Committee. “The plants have done such a good job of creating safety nets in their systems: the lockout/tagouts and other requirements requiring safety shoes, hard hats, hearing protection, eye protection and safety meetings. Everyone is looking out for safety. If you walked into a plant 25 years ago, you wouldn’t see any of that.”

Concerns about safety and automation have led not only to changes in worker protection standards but also to new information of the dangers of hard labor and repetitive motion. Where 100-lb bags of flour were once the norm, bakeries now often opt for 50-lb bags. Not only that, operators can get help from equipment to lift and move these bags to take the strain off human backs.

“We’re trying to figure out better ergonomic work stations, but we’re also trying to give tools and aids and even provide automation where we can eliminate those repetitive motions,” Hipenbecker says. “People are paying a lot more attention to conveyor height and ergonomic design so people aren’t leaning and reaching as far as they were in the past.”

Today, plants are even going further than making the production line more ergonomically friendly and employing safety managers, even nurses. These positions can drive risk assessments on new equipment and plant layouts as well as set up wellness and safety programs to encourage good habits for plant operators.