Dressed for Safety
By Sam Gazdziak, Senior Editor
Proper apparel is the key to staying injury-free, from hardhat to steel-toed boot.
Meat and poultry processing plants across the country may have many differences in how they operate and the types of products they produce, but they all share a concern for employee safety. No matter the plant, there will be employees working with sharp blades in cold environments. As long as processors remain committed to preventing accidents, the companies that manufacture and supply safety equipment will continue to add to and improve upon their products.
Coming out of the cold
Despite the fact that cold protection is a recognized safety issue, Ron Breakstone, president of Refrigiwear Inc., Dahlonego, GA, says some processors call the company only after an employee’s fingers or toes have turned purple. “In the freezer, there is an inherent risk of frostbite,” he explains. “We try and educate our customers about the proper way of dressing and the proper way of keeping the body in physical condition to be able to withstand the harsh environment of a cold storage.”
Refrigiwear offers a complete line of cold-environment, quilted outerwear and innerwear, as well as a pamphlet called “Cold Tips” that provides instruction on how to dress for the cold. The company also advises against drinking and smoking, as those habits can lower the body’s ability to withstand cold temperatures.
Breakstone says that over the years, meat and poultry plants have lowered the overall temperature of the facility. While that promotes food integrity, it also places a strain on employees, making cold protection more of a challenge. Employees who wear just a butcher smock and apron may not be sufficiently protected. They also need to dress according to their duties. “For example, the same thin glove liner you could wear if you’re going in and out of a cold storage locker, which is –5° F, isn’t sufficient hand protection if you’re in there all the time,” he says.
Carol Blakey, safety product manager for Nelson-Jameson Inc., Marshfield, WI, adds that cold temperatures also lead to other problems. “Studies have shows that accident rates rise as temperatures fall below 19° C,” she says, “due to a loss of dexterity and sensitivity. Warm muscles are less susceptible to injury.”
Nelson-Jameson supplies a line of safety items for the food industry, including boots, gloves, eyewear, hearing protection, and more. Blakey says another important issue in food processing plants concerns repetitive stress disorders and ergonomics. “Over the last fifteen years, there have been great strides to reduce the number and severity of ergonomic injuries by developing new ergonomic tools and by making the job fit the employee by modifying work areas and methods or by rotating jobs periodically,” she says.
Another trend in safety apparel has allowed companies to increase worker safety while at the same time enhancing sanitation, hygiene, and food safety, says Jeff Earnhart, executive vice president of Bunzl USA, St. Louis, MO. “For instance, all-stainless mesh products eliminate bacteria-harboring textile straps,” he says. “Cost-effective disposable work gear can be thrown away after use and not collected and laundered. Ergonomically-designed processing knives with sealed handles prevent bacterial growth in the area between the handle and the blade.”
Bunzl’s Food Processor Division offers a line of safety items that includes personal protection equipment for head, eyes, ears, hands, and feet. It also supplies ergonomically-designed knives and low-vibration saws and cutters. Earnhart says that employee fit, comfort, and acceptance are critical if a company’s safety program is to work. “If workers are not comfortable wearing safety equipment, they will be less productive and/or find a way not to use what is provided,” he says. “Make sure safety products do not hinder sanitation and food-safety efforts, and if new products provide safety and hygiene, you have a real winner.”
Material issues
The dangers of a meat processing plant can vary, depending on a person’s position. Misty Johnson, marketing manager for cleanroom & fire-resistant clothing for Cintas Protective Apparel, Cincinnati, OH, notes that maintenance people who work with 120 volts or more should be wearing fire-resistant clothing, based on a new voluntary standard from the National Fire Protection Association. “This standard helps in protecting those workers from injuries of an electric arc flash — this is definitely a hazard that is overlooked,” she says.
Along with a comprehensive uniform service, Cintas offers a variety of personal protective equipment, sanitation products, and first-aid supplies and equipment. Among the company’s uniform offerings is a flame-resistant shirt for the food processing industry. “This shirt has a gripper closure unlike buttons or snaps that could fall into the food, minimizing the risk of food contamination,” she says.
Aramark Work Apparel & Uniform Services, Norwell, MA, offers uniforms and protective apparel, as well as personal protective equipment. Jim Holton, national account executive, food manufacturing, says that purchasers need to keep in mind that uniforms play a critical role in any safety program. “Garment specifications such as fabric content, closure type, and body and sleeve length all need to be considered carefully to help reduce opportunities for food contamination and injuries,” he says.
There are a variety of fabrics that are now being used in uniforms and protective apparel, he says. These include fabrics that are anti-microbial to protect against contamination or high-visibility to ensure workers can be seen in high-traffic areas.
Holton says that a company’s uniform supplier should act as a consultant who is an expert in the industry. “This supplier can work with you as a partner to evaluate your equipment and safety needs, and to identify and implement equipment and apparel that will best support your HACCP (Hazard  Analysis and Critical Control Points) program.”
Bill Smith, chief financial officer and executive vice president of PolyConversions Inc., Rantoul, IL, says that traditional materials used for aprons like vinyl and polyurethane have cleanability issues. The company manufactures coat aprons, sleeves, and other products from a seamless material called VR, which Smith says cleans better and lasts longer than other traditional barrier materials.
The right materials can promote both food safety and employee safety, he adds. A vinyl apron tends to stiffen after repeated sanitizing and exposure to cold temperatures. “The plasticizers used to make vinyl what it is — a pliable material — start leeching out,” he says. “The material becomes hard and brittle, and it starts flecking.” Not only are the vinyl flecks a hazard if they get into the food chain, but the plasticizers are also a carcinogen and a danger to employees.
The weight of an employee’s apparel also needs to be considered, Smith adds. “When you’re in a controlled environment, and it’s cooler, there are a lot of clothes [employees] are wearing,” he explains. “When you put on a heavy barrier product over what you already have, it wears on you all day long. You need something that’s lightweight but strong.”
Hands and feet
In an industry that relies on employees doing some processing of the meat by hand, proper gloves are essential apparel. “Because twenty-five percent of all workplace accidents involve hand and finger injuries, many companies are placing a higher priority on identifying critical issues associated with the workplace environment,” says Scott Atkinson, business development manager, foodservice and food processing, of Ansell Healthcare, Red Bank, NJ. Ansell offers safety gloves for a variety of applications in the food processing industry.
Atkinson adds that a “one size fits all” approach to selecting safety apparel is not effective, as different parts of a plant require different safeguards. “For example, most employees who handle beef wear nitrile gloves, because they provide high levels of protection against many chemicals,” he explains. “In some facilities, who handle chemicals or solvents for cleaning may use the same gloves as the meat handlers. This has the potential to result in chemical burns, skin irritations, and other types of injuries.” Similarly, gloves with a textured surface may provide a better grip for workers handling knives, while other applications may require smooth rubber latex gloves.
Recent advancements in materials and glove manufacturing processes have resulted in lightweight gloves that are more comfortable for workers to wear, Atkinson says. “Advanced fiber technology represented by Kevlar® and Spectra allow glove manufacturers to provide super-strong products that offer excellent protection against cuts and abrasions,” he says. In addition, some coated gloves are now dipped on forms with curved fingers that conform to the actual shape of the hand for improved ergonomics and greater comfort.
Mark Reid, product manager for Perfect Fit Glove, Buffalo, NY, says proper use and care of hand-protection products are often overlooked. “Properly cleaning our TuffShield cut-resistant gloves, and proper use such as not pulling at the gloves with a meat hook, can greatly extend the life of these products,” he says.
Among the types of gloves Perfect Fit offers are seamless knits, cut and sewn, chemical liquid, and metal mesh. The company’s newest TuffSheild products are made with anti-microbial yarns that help protect gloves from deterioration caused by mildew, mold, and other microorganisms.
Reid recommends that form, fit, and function be considered when trying to balance the costs of products. “You usually do get what you pay for in hand protection, because it is such a competitive industry,” he says. “Some companies are on the cutting edge of technology, and usually higher technology in glove products do translate in benefits to the processor in terms of safety and cost benefits.”
Along with the hands, there are also new developments in foot protection. “There are a number of products on the market that will protect someone’s feet from the wet surfaces,” says Ken Freedman, vice president of NEOS, Franklin, MA. “What some safety managers overlook is the effects on the body from standing on a hard, cold surface for eight to ten hours a day. Most boots are merely shells offering little or no support to the wearer.”
NEOS has developed a new overshoe designed specifically for the food-processing industry. It was designed to be easily cleaned and has an extra-wide gusset for easy donning. “We have had customers whose disability back-injury claims directly related to the strain incurred while pulling on a traditional overshoe,” Freedman says.
Freedman notes a few trends in the food-processing industry that may affect safety apparel purchases. “We are all dealing with an aging demographic,” he says. “People are working longer and putting retirement off. An aging workforce tends to have more issues with their feet, back, and legs.” Using an overshoe instead of a traditional show program, he says, allows employees to wear their most comfortable shoes to work each day. And because cross-contamination is an issue, he adds, overshoes and other safety gear should be color coded. NP