Pandemic heightened concerns on food industry injuries

Research released last month shows that food industry worker injury and fatality rates increased at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, triggering regulators to focus on historical problems in food production safety.

While pandemic-related pressures on food manufacturing and distribution caused injury rates and fatalities to rise problems existed before COVID-19 hit, the authors of the six-year study said.

The study, which was partly funded by the Nationwide Insurance Endowment for Safety & Health and compiled by Penn State University and University of Florida professors, looked at occupational injuries as they relate to transport packaging and related product movement in the U.S. food supply chain.

“The relevance of employee health and safety to food supply chain functioning has recently been highlighted as product availability has not matched demand, due in large part to worker safety concerns,” the researchers wrote. “This is one of many reasons safety professionals and corporate management should be concerned about hazards encountered by workers in the food supply chain.”

Although unrelated, the study came out shortly after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced changes to the issuance of fines and citations in workplace investigations, and after the federal government announced it hired more than 200 new OSHA inspectors since 2021. In late March, OSHA said it would begin adding a multiplier to fines.

“It kind of makes sense that the U.S. food supply chain has a higher risk of injury,” said San Francisco-based Sonya Luisoni, senior risk services manager for Safety National Casualty Corp.

Ms. Luisoni said U.S. food service companies rely heavily on storing and transporting materials on pallets and using devices such as forklifts and pallet jacks, which likely contributed to increased injuries and deaths in the sector in recent years as production ramped up, especially during the pandemic.

“Those are always high-risk activities, particularly because of the weight of what they’re carrying,” she said.

Many U.S. food service companies have not invested in robotics or other safety technology, she said.

“We have a lot of smaller companies that do a lot of this work who don’t have the funds or the capital to invest in these systems,” Ms. Luisoni said.

The increased workload during the pandemic led to longer hours and more fatigue among workers, said T.H. Lyda, who heads up the OSHA practice group at the Pittsburgh-based law firm Burns White LLC.

Since the pandemic began, OSHA has instituted several targeted enforcement programs, including a Local Emphasis Program that focuses on more than 1,400 food production manufacturing facilities in Illinois and Ohio, which saw higher than average worker injury rates.

The program was spurred by reports of fatalities, amputations, fractures, and crushed hands and fingers in those two states between 2016 and 2020.

“Workers have the right to file a confidential safety and health complaint and request an OSHA inspection of their workplace if they believe there is a serious hazard or they think their employer is not following OSHA standards,” an OSHA spokeswoman said in a statement.

Mr. Lyda said food companies should expect “higher scrutiny” from the Department of Labor, which oversees OSHA.

Dave Crowley, vice president of environmental health and safety and sustainability for Lynnfield, Massachusetts-based dairy processing company HP Hood LLC, said the most common injuries seen in the food and beverage industry are musculoskeletal.

“Our accountability measures are focused on the leading indicators,” he said. “What are you doing to prevent injuries from happening?”

This article was first published in Business Insurance.

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