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The TUC South West is warning that the region’s food processing factories could become “super spreaders” of Covid-19 in the run up to Christmas. 

People working in food plants already face a higher chance of contracting Covid-19 due to the lack of airflow, lack of social distancing and low temperatures, says the TUC.

With the number of temporary workers in food manufacturing set to increase by more than 40% this Christmas, the union body says the risk of workplace infections will grow. 

Factory and warehouse outbreaks

Since March, several UK food factories have been forced to close during the pandemic after reporting hundreds of cases of coronavirus, among them suppliers to major supermarkets.

Just recently, 106 workers have had to isolate at the red meat processing factory, Kepak, in Bodmin, Cornwall.

This follows a small number of workers at the 2 Sisters chicken processing plant in Willand, Devon who tested positive in May. The Devon factory employs 1,000 people and processes chicken for chains including KFC and Aldi. Earlier in the year, around a quarter of the 560 workers at its in North Wales factory also contracted the virus.

According to data from the European Centre for Disease Control, food processing has the third highest rate of outbreaks of any sector across Europe, after care homes and hospitals. The TUC says it is also a key sector in the South West economy providing thousands of jobs for workers, particularly in rural areas.

Safety guidance is ‘out-of-date’

The TUC warns that current workplace safety guidance for food production is “out-of-date”.

New scientific studies have shown the significance of airborne transmission with Covid-19 aerosols remaining suspended in the air for hours. But the existing government guidance is still largely based on stopping spread of droplets which fall to the ground in seconds. 

The TUC says ministers must update the guidance to deal with issues including:  

  • Ventilation: the current guidance fails to offer advice on effective ventilation beyond opening windows. And it doesn’t state what additional measures should be implemented in instances where this is not possible to achieve.   
  • Face coverings: the government should issue detailed standards on the quality of face coverings. The World Health Organisation says there should be three protective layers.   
  • Workplace temperature: studies show that coronavirus thrives in the cooler temperatures found in meat packing factories. But there is no mention of workplace temperatures in the current official guidance.   
  • Social distancing: the current guidance states that, where two metre distancing is not possible, working side-by-side is preferable to face-to face. The TUC says this rule should be reviewed based on the most recent scientific findings.  

The TUC says ministers must stop dragging their feet and make it a legal requirement on employers to publish their risk assessments so that workers have confidence that the necessary precautions are in place.  

While most employers are working hard to ensure safe practices, the TUC fears that the pressure of Christmas will see standards slip and some bosses will cut corners.

Earlier this month, Elite Poultry in Bristol pleaded guilty to safety breaches prior to the pandemic. The View Cutting plant in Bristol was also ordered to pay more than £60,000 for hygiene failings.

Nigel Costley, TUC Regional Secretary for the South West said:

“There is a real danger that food factories could become 'super spreaders' of Covid-19 as they prepare turkeys and other seasonal goods for Christmas.

“Out-of-date guidelines on food production, combined with the seasonal increase in staff, puts factory workers at an even higher risk of infection.

“Ministers urgently need to update the guidance for food production and make it a legal requirement for employers to publish their risk assessments.

On top of this, the government must resource HSE properly so their officers can get into food factories and crack down on unsafe working conditions

“Union health and safety reps in food processing operations have a hard enough time representing a workforce with a very high turnover, especially at this time of year when everyone is under pressure to get the product into shops. They should be supported and given the time to carry out their functions.

“That’s how to make sure everyone is safe at work this Christmas.”

Enforcement not doing enough to contain outbreaks

The TUC says comparatively little enforcement action is taking place. The number of notices issued by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for Covid-19 related reasons is very low, with just 31 issued to manufacturing employers since April. 

The TUC wants to see a big rise in workplace inspections. And the union body says that employer compliance, as measured by the HSE, is at odds with the rise in workplace infections because government safety measures are not up-to-date and not doing enough to protect workers.

Editors note

- TUC analysis of the Labour Force Survey shows there were 42.5% more temporary workers in food manufacture during October to December 2019, compared to the overall average for 2019.
- Examples of suppliers to supermarkets across the country that have had to close are: Kober, 2 Sisters, Cranswick, Greencore, Rowan Foods, Bernard Matthews.
- For information from the European Centre for Disease Control about coronavirus outbreaks in food processing, see this link 

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