Food and employee safety is a primary concern for meat and poultry processors. And ensuring that each and every worker who walks on to the plant floor is dressed appropriately and protected from harm goes a long way toward alleviating those trepidations.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to protect their employees from workplace hazards such as machines, work procedures and hazardous substances that can cause injury. The preferred way to do this is through engineering controls or work practice and administrative controls, but when these controls are not feasible or do not provide sufficient protection, an alternative or supplementary method of protection is to provide workers with personal protective equipment (PPE) and the know-how to use it properly.

PPE includes a variety of devices and garments to protect workers from injuries. PPE is designed to protect eyes, face, head, ears, feet, hands, arms and whole body. It includes such items as goggles, face shields, safety glasses, hard hats, safety shoes, gloves, vests, earplugs and earmuffs. Respirators and rubber insulating equipment (gloves, sleeves, blankets) are also considered PPE. Standards also require employers to establish general procedures, called a PPE program, to give employees necessary protective equipment and train them to use it properly.

Training to ensure that all employees know the proper dress code from boots to hairnet and helmet is essential. When all workers know the proper garments to wear, the more likely it is that an attentive employee will quickly spot someone out of uniform or PPE code and bring it to his or her attention.

“When I think of apparel, I think of the clothing people wear to work because of the environment — the nature of their work in the plant. In the meat industry, every company has different specifications and requirements, specifically, clothing programs where employers dictate specific attire,” says J. Dan McCausland, director of worker safety and human resources for the American Meat Institute (AMI).

“PPE, on the other hand, is mandated by OSHA and has been evolving as new and improved materials have come along. Workers in meat plants wear a variety of PPE from metal-mesh gloves and aprons to kevlar and similar cut-resistant fibers in a wide variety of gloves. They also wear hard hats, safety shoes/boots, heavy rubber gloves, and other PPE such as full arm guards, aprons, rain suits, etc.”

In terms of food safety, PPE has to be cleanable so it does not add to the likelihood of product deterioration, and hard hats, for example, are color coded for various food-protection aspects of processing.

According to McCausland, the efficacy of workplace apparel or PPE depends on several factors.

“First of all, requisites are based on use. Metal-mesh gloves, for example, last forever. You can have breaks and ringlets come loose, but these gloves are expensive enough that they can be sent back for repair,” he says. “On the other hand, with repeated use and washing and exposure to bleach and harsh soap, fabric gloves will deteriorate over time. Glove per glove, however, you could buy three or four fabric gloves for the cost of one mesh glove, so there’s a trade-off that exists.”

There are standards for levels of protection for all types of PPE, says McCausland. “There have been considerable improvements in fabrics that are cut-proof and lighter in weight, providing for better grip, giving the standard stainless-steel mesh glove a run for its money,” he says. “And these newer materials, such as the kevlar-based fabrics, are nearly as cut-resistant as steel mesh.”

Overall, there are three main reasons fabric gloves are becoming a more popular choice in the industry, says McCausland. “One, the fabric is much lighter in weight. Two, the gloves tend to fit better; therefore, it is easier to grip product. Three, metal mesh protects very well but greatly reduces tactile [touch] sense. It is more like wearing a glove to drive a car to work than wearing a glove to protect you from cuts,” he says. “But, it is important to note that in some instances, for efficiency, you lose longevity. For example, fabric gloves may be more efficient, but they do not last as long. Again, underscoring the point that primary selection requisites are individually dictated and based on the nature of hazard exposure.”

Employee coverage

Many OSHA health, food production, safety, maritime and construction standards require employers to provide their employees with protective equipment, including PPE, when such equipment is necessary to protect employees from job-related injuries, illnesses and fatalities. These requirements address PPE of many kinds — hard hats, gloves, goggles, safety shoes, safety glasses, welding helmets and goggles, face shields, chemical protective equipment, fall-protection equipment, and so forth.

The provisions in OSHA standards that require PPE generally state that the employer is to provide such PPE. However, some of these provisions did not specify that the employer is to provide such PPE at no cost to the employee. OSHA now requires employers to pay for the PPE provided, with exceptions for specific items. The rule does not require employers to provide PPE where none has been required before. Instead, the rule merely stipulates that the employer must pay for required PPE, except in the limited cases specified in the standard. The final rule became effective February 13, 2008, and had to be implemented by May 15.

It is important to note that PPE has typically been supplied to meat- and poultry-plant employees at no cost to them.

In 2002, the meat industry expanded its cooperative relationship with OSHA to seek further workplace enhancements. AMI and OSHA signed an agreement to establish an alliance to promote safe and healthful working conditions for meat-industry employees, achieve outreach, communication, training and education goals within the industry and promote a national dialogue on workplace safety and health.

As part of this alliance, there continues to be an active focus on PPE.

For more information on PPE and worker safety in the meat and poultry industry, visit the American Meat Institute, www.meatami.com or www.workersafety.org; Occupational Safety and Health Administration, www.osha.gov; or National Safety Council, www.nsc.org.

PPE checklist

• Identify steps taken to assess potential hazards in every employee’s work space and in workplace operating procedure.
• Identify appropriate PPE selection criteria.
• Identify how you will train employeeson the use of PPE, including:
• What PPE is necessary.
• When PPE is necessary.
• How to properly inspect PPE for wear or damage.
• How to properly put on and adjust the fitof PPE.
• How to properly take off PPE.
• The limitations of the PPE.
• How to properly care for and store PPE.
• Identify how you will assess employee understanding of PPE training.
• Identify how you will enforce proper PPE use.
• Identify how you will provide for any requiredmedical examinations.
• Identify how and when to evaluate the PPE program.

Source: OSHA