We all have a tendency, at times, to do something the way we’ve always done it simply because it’s the way we’ve always done it. Because it’s easier to maintain the “good enough” status quo than to go out on a limb and find a better way.
But when it comes to food safety and worker safety, there’s no such thing as good enough. Especially with increased regulation and the high cost of a recall, food processors are striving to reduce the distance from perfect in all areas of their operations.
To learn how personal protective equipment (PPE) can help processors reach this goal, we spoke with Troy Secchio, the Director of Sales and Marketing at IRONWEAR, a company that provides personal protective safety products across many industries, including food processing. IRONWEAR has been manufacturing personal protective wear for 45 years, and they still constantly re-engineer their products to help manufacturers meet increasingly stringent food and worker safety standards, as well as increase productivity.
A shift in thinking about PPE, from risk category to application
In 2015, which is the most recent year for which data is available, the nonfatal occupational injury and illness rate in the food manufacturing industry was 4.7 per 100 full-time workers. This represents a decrease compared to years past (it was 5.8 in 2010), but it also demonstrates that there’s room for improvement (the average for manufacturing industries is 3.8).
While many factors have contributed to improved worker safety, one has certainly been a shift in the way food manufacturers think about PPE.
In a 2013 article in Food Quality & Safety, Sharon Ann Quinn noted that the “classic approach of selecting protection gear through risk categories–mechanical, chemical, and liquid product–does not work for the food industry.” Instead, processors should categorize equipment based on application, considering “the type of operation (e.g. meat processing, beverages, dairy products, cereal, and milling), the primary type of food handled, and the worker task (e.g. reception of live animals, sawing machines, slicing, cleaning).”
That’s exactly how IRONWEAR approaches their design process. “We look at impacting employee safety and enhancing productivity by manufacturing personal protective wear with a focus on what employees do within each individual job task,” Secchio says. “In this way, we tackle the safety and food safety challenges workers face day in and day out. Likewise, we re-engineer our battle-tested products because we understand that plant applications change and it’s important not to take a ‘status quo’ approach.”
As an example, IRONWEAR collaborated with a leading poultry processor to engineer a glove that could stand up to the challenge of transferring a chicken or turkey from the coop to the shackle, a task that, due to its hands-on nature, presents many opportunities for recordable incidents.
Here’s what they did to craft an impact- and cut-resistant glove to protect workers from the inherent task hazards:
- Made the base of the glove an ANSI cut level 5. This designation was tested and verified by a third party testing company.
- Engineered the glove with a foam nitrile dip to the front, which creates a sure-handed grip.
- Put a grit patch between the thumb and pointer. This helps the glove last longer and protects against cut and puncture incidents from the back foot of the chicken.
- Added thermoplastic rubber (TPR) impact points on the back of the glove to protect the employee’s knuckles from smashing up against the hard steel of the shackles. The TPR also has a high visibility pattern, which helps employees working in low light conditions.
- Included a neoprene-padded palm for increased protection and comfort.
- Used a Velcro wrist strap so employees can easily get the gloves on and off. This also reduces pressure from the wrist by allowing employees to adjust the tension throughout the day.
Together, these modifications make for a glove that is both high performing and comfortable.
Providing value by enhancing food safety
Improving worker safety is, of course, only one benefit of PPE. Another is increasing food safety, in particular, reducing the risk of cross-contamination. And, as with all equipment, from the largest processing machines to eye, hand, and foot protection, processors want the products that will provide the most value.
Working with another industry-leading processor, IRONWEAR engineered a new type of premium eyewear that uses an infused, rather than a coated, anti-fog process to help processors meet their worker safety, food safety, and bottom line goals.
“We look at eyewear from the standpoint of visual safety,” Secchio said. “We put so much emphasis on hand protection and slips and falls, and rightly so. However, if employees aren’t confident in wearing safety glasses — and they have to take them off to wipe away fog — this puts them at risk when working and walking around the plant.”
IRONWEAR’s Iron-Fog eyewear line is made using high-quality, lightweight, durable materials. In tests, the lenses have been shown to last “well over eight months in most all applications.” While the glasses do cost more upfront than more traditional eyewear, they provide a more favorable cost-benefit ratio because they last longer.
The glasses also have two qualities to enhance safety and support cross-contamination programs:
- Color templates to control proper use in defined areas
- No metal parts, so they’re Dielectric II
Due to the success of this process, IRONWEAR has extended this line to include goggles with and without face shields. Furthermore, the company is working to produce a metal detectable version.
Keeping employees sure-footed at a low cost
Slip-and-fall hazards are common in food manufacturing facilities, especially meat and poultry processing plants. Workers are also often on their feet for long periods of time.
To help keep workers safe and comfortable, IRONWEAR took on the challenge of designing a slip-resistant boot that was also comfortable, long lasting, and cost competitive.
The result was the Iron-MAX boot, which is made of polyurethane to stand up to the tough plant environment and has deep and wide tread channels to provide superior traction even when there are proteins on the floor.
The boots are also comfortable. Secchio said that the trend has been to take weight out of the boot, but IRONWEAR reversed this trend to build a heavy-duty foot platform. “This design provides greater comfort, allowing body weight to be evenly distributed while standing and walking for long periods. After using the boot for more than six months, many major processors gave us the feedback their employees reported greater comfort and fewer back issues.” The boot also has a composite toecap that doesn’t transfer heat and cold, and it has a cowboy cut upper so that it rubs less around the top while employees are walking and moving around.
Once again, the boots come in multiple colors, which, Secchio notes, support and enhance cross-contamination programs to positively impact food safety.
Overall, the work that IRONWEAR has done over the past 45 years, and continues to do today, highlights the importance of taking a comprehensive approach to improving your plant’s operations. Just like a more energy-efficient machine can provide higher throughput, a safer and more comfortable employee will work more productively. And that requires applying the same creative approach that’s driving innovation in new equipment to everything in your facility, including the PPE your employees wear every day.
“Why settle for what was used in the past?” Secchio says. “We believe that we can have the greatest impact by working with those who do the job to engineer equipment for each individual application. So, let’s get this done and improve on the value we created yesterday.”