If food safety is a farm-to-fork focus, it is also a head-to-toe priority within a processing plant.

Whatever apparel an employee may don (or doff, for that matter) can make a difference in the prevention of both worker-related injuries and cross-contamination of harmful bacteria. From headgear to shoes and gloves to garments, apparel can be considered another useful tool in safety and quality programs.

The consequences of ineffective protection are significant. From a worker-safety standpoint, most head, eye, foot and leg injuries in manufacturing and production settings are linked to employees who were not wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. From a food-safety standpoint, the inadvertent transmission of pathogens in a production area that includes raw meat or poultry can result in costly recalls or worse, illnesses and deaths.

Over the past several years, improvements in PPE and a stronger focus on worker safety led by plants as well as government agencies such as OSHA, have helped protect personnel. According to the Washington, D.C.-based American Meat Institute (AMI), the rate of injury and illness cases per 100 full-time workers in the meat and poultry industry fell to 12.1 in meat packing plants, 8.2 in meat-processing plants and 6.1 in poultry slaughtering plants in 2007, down from respective rates of 32.1, 16.6 and 16.8 in 1997.

Advances such as the use of stainless-steel closing systems in metal mesh gloves or the requirement of steel-toed boots, among others, have contributed to the reduction in worker injuries. For food safety, improvements such as boot washes, antimicrobials added to garments and more comprehensive training on the prevention of cross-contamination, prove that what (and how) a processing-plant employee wears is an intervention in itself.

Today, as productivity becomes an even greater issue in a stagnant economy, and as slipping consumer confidence in food safety has ratcheted up its emphasis, there are areas of continued improvement for apparel used in meat- and poultry-processing facilities.

One area extends beyond physical apparel to the employee’s mindset. “The issue with safety isn’t necessarily top-down ‘This is how you do it,’ but getting workers to realize that ‘this is a hazard’ and it’s in their best interest to be aware of it,” says Jon Wallace, a safety consultant for the Workplace Group in Chapel Hill, N.C. and a regular presenter at meat industry safety seminars.

Other roadblocks stem from regulatory or oversight issues. Barry Michaels, an industry consultant and owner of B. Michaels Group Inc., Palatka, Fla., cites a recent university research project on protective gloves. “There have been quite a number of approaches in glove areas, involving protection from needle punctures, for instance,” Michaels explains.

However, says Michaels, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not permit a claim to be made about gloves’ role in the reduction of viral transmissions like hepatitis or HIV via needle punctures. “FDA did not allow that claim to be made even though there was a proven reduction. The reduction was probably in the 50 or 60 percent range, and the FDA likes to see things in 3-log reductions or 99 percent reduction,” he explains.

The increasing complexity of plant operations has also affected purchasing decisions for apparel. Since several meat and poultry companies have evolved in recent years into food processors with diverse operations ranging from slaughter to cooking to packaging, the types of PPE tools and equipment can vary widely within one plant or group of plants.

Some processors say they’d like to see a greater variety of clothing or apparel weights for those different functions, depending on the temperature of the area in which certain employees work. For example, Jim Hardison, vice president of human resources for Delphi, Ind.-based Indiana Packers Corp., says that those who work in the coldest area of his plants have updated their footwear. “You think of coats and warm hats and gloves, but a lot of plants don’t require freezer boots,” he says. “A freezer boot is a lot warmer and that’s something we started doing.”

Laura Fenton, vice president of food safety systems integrity for Enid, Okla.-based Advance Food Co., says that a greater choice of clothing options would be appreciated, such as the use of insulated materials for garments.

Efforts continue on improvements to apparel. Michaels says that the addition of antimicrobials to certain coverings is promising. “There was a flurry of activity a few years ago and then it died down, but it’s picking up steam,” he says, citing an example of gloves that have been treated with antimicrobials. Another breakthrough technology, according to Michaels, is the use of fabric treatments such as sodium hypochloride.

For employee protection, new technologies are also leading to the development of innovative apparel, such as the use of materials used for bullet-proof vests and military gear now found in cutting areas of meat plants.

Beyond the kill, processing, cooking, freezing or packaging floor, plant operators are taking another look at apparel for employees doing work unrelated to product “One thing that may be outside meat and poultry, but it still applies, is apparel for electrical workers and electricians. The big change is that more electricians are wearing flame-resistant clothing,” says Wallace, who notes that electrical arc flashes result in up to 10 hospitalizations a day in this country in various manufacturing facilities. Flame-resistant fabrics have improved and become more lightweight, he adds, while many electricians in processing facilities are now wearing special boots, insulated gloves and even fire-resistant hair coverings.

Whatever an employee may wear from head to toe, safety is ultimately linked with performance and comfort. “You have to manage it,” says Scott Blazak, safety manager for Indiana Packers Corp.

“You can always put them in steel armor, but they have to do their job properly and safely. They can’t be hindered, either.”