Today’s environment created by COVID-19 has redefined worker safety in third-party production facilities such as commissaries and central kitchens, said Rowdy Brixey, president of Holt, Mo.-based BEST: Brixey Engineering Strategies & Training. 

In the past, worker safety was anchored around access and temperature control. New measures introduced, such as social distancing requirements, brought in the need to quickly modify existing facilities to accommodate new needs, highlighting the importance of future designs that allow production facilities to adapt quickly.

Supermarket Perimeter (virtually) sat down with Brixey for a Q&A focused on how to best design commissaries and central kitchens to maximize worker safety.

Rowdy Brixey

 Supermarket Perimeter: What are the most important factors for production facilities to consider in designing a facility in a way that best maximizes worker safety?

Brixey: I would say that number one, before you even decide your operation assets or even how to design or layout the facility, I think you’ve first got to stop and start with what's the process flow for this product I'm making. Then you have to think of ergonomics. You can start thinking, ‘Okay, I can just put some people out there’, but if the ergo issues with, say, bending and twisting and lifting are going to create this ongoing condition that could lead to say back injuries or exhaustion, then that could be your constraint and force you have a different asset strategy.

Far too many of the small startups or smaller operations that see growth don’t put an asset strategy in place. I would like to see more working backwards; like, if I'm new, and I'm just starting out, what if we really see a lot of growth? Will I have enough room, and enough flexibility to build this, and increase my rate or my capacity? For instance, say you don’t start out with a check weigher, and you’re going to just manually take samples every hour and pull samples and check the weight. But later, if you grow your capacity, you may want an inline check weigher. So, in that case, you would probably lay out a location for the check weigher to go by putting in a six-foot conveyor that in the future you could pull out and install a check weigher without having to reconfigure the entire line, or you can add a metal detector or an x-ray machine.

So, if you don’t really think of ‘What will I do if this sees a lot of growth,’ and you didn't lay out for asset strategy, you can't always just shut the line down for two weeks and redefine your layout.


SP: What is the best way for commissaries and central kitchens to strike a balance between automated processes and use of manual labor that best serves worker safety?

Brixey: So when I think of that manual work to automation balance. I think everyone starts out smaller, with less depreciation of assets and overhead and automation, and as they grow, they invest — whether it's for rate, or whether it's for ergonomics, or whether it's for expanding the product portfolio. But if you do not lay it out in a way, in an area with enough room to allow those investments, you shoehorn yourself into where you can't take advantage of that opportunity to automate.


SP: How do you choose the best machines and automated processes to maximize worker safety?

Brixey: Safety depends on the effectiveness of the machine. You could have a very manual process that maybe is extremely safe, but its production rate or volume would be low. And then you can have a highly automated machine take that place that gives you a higher rate, and runs really well, and reduces the interaction between the associate and the machine, and you get that safety benefit from lack of interaction. But if it’s the wrong machine, or let's say you're trying to run it too fast, or it just isn't a good machine, and people are constantly having to unjam it or interact with it, it ups the likelihood of an accident.

When we do maps of a facility and look at where there are the highest number of near accidents, the number one likelihood is always where there was more reaching into the machine. And that always happens in two areas of the plant: the makeup area and the packaging area. In between when you're just conveying it, you don't reach into an oven very often or proof box or cooler. Or let's say in a manual operation you put the pan on the rack and it just sits there, it doesn't require any attendant. But when you're pumping something through a depositor or divider, or when you're trying to put it in a bag or put it in a box, there are so many times that there will be a jam or reject and that's when your likelihood goes up. The consequences of your worst injury go up with increased frequency of interaction.


SP: Does more automation equal increased worker safety?

Brixey: If properly applied, yes, automation helps with worker safety. That begins with defining what you need a machine to be able to do to do a task well. Maybe it's going from temperature A to temperature B. If it's a conveyor, maybe it's how wide and how fast it is. And then, people should look at what the error rate is, what the up time and the mean time between failure is, as they compare the assets. You may find five machines that can all run the product at the rate you want, but then the next question should be more aligned with the cost of ownership. Especially, when you think of up time and mean time between failure, because if those numbers are low and you go cheap, that's that many more times an associate is going to have to reach in to interact with the mechanics and again your likelihood of an accident is going to go up.


SP: When a new machine is introduced to the work area, what are the best practices to minimize any incidents that may come from associates interacting with new machinery?

Brixey: Everyone talks about training when it comes to installing a new asset, but a lot of people don't dedicate enough time to it. I like to see training take a validated learning approach where it’s, ‘I'm going to show you how to use this. I'm going to show you how to disassemble this to clean it, put it back together. Now I want you to do it, and I'm going to validate that you actually understand and can perform that activity.’ Too many times the trainings are kind of like, ‘Okay, here's the manual, read these two pages. Let me walk you out there, see if you got any questions.’ But most of the questions I've seen that are really meaningful are after a machine has been worked with for a while.

Think of a new car, for example. You go buy a new car, and maybe somebody wants to walk you through how to pair your phone and show you how to use all the new in-dash functionality, but you just can't wait to get behind that wheel and drive it and you pull away. A week later, you're trying to figure out something you're pretty sure that the car is capable of doing, but you haven't been shown or you can't quite figure it out. And, unfortunately, it's not always economical to have someone come back two weeks later to do training.

The key is really defining and putting some teeth into the requirements of that training in advance so that the supplier is there long enough and understands that when you tell them to train Bobby or Susie, it means that you watch them perform and demonstrate and prove to you that they can accomplish that task.