Regulations and cost have increased the emphasis on worker safety.
A food production facility can inherently be an unsafe space. Moving parts, high temperatures, plenty of sharp surfaces and more make commissaries, central kitchens and bakeries places where inattention can prove costly.

And with a shifting landscape, gone are the days where putting up “Safety First” posters or delivering a few speeches to employees is enough when it comes to worker safety.

“I believe the emphasis on worker safety has changed significantly and I think it’s done so for two main reasons,” says Rowdy Brixey, president of Brixey Engineering Strategies and Training, a firm that specializes in helping food companies run at peak efficiency. “There are new regulations and oversight and there’s also a lot of cost that’s associated with injuries.”

What may have been considered a simple necessary risk of the job is now looked at much more closely.

“Safety has definitely become something that is very, very important to businesses. Likewise, it’s just as important for the end users in the food industry,” says Todd Blair, director of brand marketing for ITW Food Equipment Group, which includes banners like Baxter, Hobart, Traulsen, Peerless and more. “We go to our jobs for the wellbeing of our lives outside of work. At the end of the day, we’re all trying to go home to our family, friends and loved ones. In essence, that’s that we work for.”

And, in addition to the obvious reasons for making your space as safe as possible, there are business-minded reasons as well.

“From a purely business standpoint, any potential safety incident brings with it a lot of cost liability and potential disruption for business operations,” Blair says. “In addition to the obvious, humane aspect of it, any business that needs to operate smoothly needs to do so in a safe environment.

“I think for most businesses, safety is a huge part of the culture moving forward. In some cases, you can’t have a customer if you don’t meet certain safety certifications.”

Creating a safer culture

There are plenty of ways to improve worker safety when it comes to equipment design, but emphasizing a safe culture is an important first step. That process, Brixey says, can’t begin anywhere else but at the very top.

“Companies can hire a safety expert to introduce systems and programs, but the key component will be a true change in the leadership’s mindset and behavior toward safety,” he says. “Some leaders believe they can simply hire a manager or purchase a safety program and the rest will take care of itself. Zero injuries must be seen as a possibility. It’s a cultural journey and it must be led from the top down.”

Blair says a big part of that culture is emphasizing awareness when working and navigating on the facility floor.

“You have to have a safety culture and practice,” he says. “In the foodservice industry, sometimes you’re moving so fast that if the equipment itself doesn’t have protocols, it’s very easy to take shortcuts. When you do that, it doesn’t take much for something to go wrong.”

That’s why Brixey stresses a company’s culture. When working with clients he points out that maturity in safety is a result of a team’s culture. “High turnover can be seen as an erosion of the culture, thus impacting sustainability,” he says.

Once the culture is solidified, it’s important to bring new employees on board with a solid training program that showcases the company’s commitment to safety.

“There should be an onboarding program in place that assures associates get the proper training before you release them to the plant floor,” he says. “This training is often skipped or delayed when employers are shorthanded. The training should have some component of but verify.”

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Equipment plays a key role in worker safety.
Equipment needs

Regardless of where a company’s culture is rooted, equipment manufacturers can play a key role in keeping workers safer.

“Again, when you’re moving too fast, that’s when things can go wrong. That’s why I think, as a manufacturer, it’s important to recognize some of the areas that are the biggest risks and try to address them within the design of the equipment,” Blair says.

Baxter recently introduced its VersaOven, which Blair says was designed with worker safety in mind. For starters, the oven is somewhat self-cleaning, which can cut down on repetitive motions for workers when trying to sanitize the equipment.

“It was actually inspired by our commercial dishwasher’s technology,” Blair says. “It has a rinse arm within it that does a really good job of cleaning out the unit very quickly, without requiring what might be the typical tedious cleaning tasks.”

The VersaOven also separates grease and filters it into bins that can be wheeled away relatively easily. This takes away a heavy item that needs to be lifted and carried while also reducing the risk of spilled grease becoming a fall hazard.

“Furthermore, the oven rotates so you don’t have to worry about rotating pans,” Blair says. “When you’re rotating pans, you’re exposed to heat elements and are at a greater risk for burn injuries.”

When it comes to mixers, bowl guards serve as an interlock, preventing the machine from turning on if the guard is not in place.

“Mixers are a big one that can be more dangerous than some think,” Blair says. “If the safety function is not in place, that means hands or other body parts might be where they shouldn’t be.”

Other relatively simple designs like blades that can be removed and placed into the dishwasher while never being exposed to the worker and slicers that can run automatically can be key in running a facility with fewer injuries.

“There are certainly plenty of things going on in a kitchen environment — whether it’s directly related to the equipment, indirectly, or not at all — that can create unsafe risks,” Blair says. “Every piece of equipment is a little different. That’s part of the reason that sometimes we’re a little more expensive.

“We are taking the time to not only make the best equipment, but also design those types of features into them.”