September 1, 2007
Flooring systems are built to last, designed for product and worker safety.
In the day-to-day running of a meat or poultry processing facility, most employees working on the floor don’t think twice about the floor itself — and that’s just the way plant operators like it.
If a floor is damaged, at worst, or outdated, at best, a company likely will have to contend with a production slowdown, food-safety problem or employee injury, among other potential pitfalls, somewhere down the line. That is particularly true in pivotal, heavy-traffic areas such as a further-processing floor or storage and retrieval room.
Although floors in any type of manufacturing environment get a fair share of use and abuse over the years, surfaces in perishable food plants like meat and poultry facilities are distinctive for a variety of reasons — and hence pose a unique set of challenges.
“You can come up against multiple things. There are environmental conditions that are different, like high relative humidity in an area or a continuously wet floor,” reports Steve Lipman, technical manager and urethane product manager for flooring supplier Dur-A-Flex Inc., East Hartford, Conn. In food processing, he adds, wide temperature variations in a relatively short period, such as hot water discharge from boilers or kitchen equipment or from steam cleaning, or extreme cold conditions such as blast freezers and coolers can have an adverse effect on adhesion of synthetic flooring materials.
Flooring products need to exhibit a co-efficient of thermal expansion and contraction similar to that of concrete to avoid the stresses caused by thermal cycling affecting the bond strength to the concrete.
Paul Patuka, president of Advanced Surfaces Corp., Villa Rica, Ga., also says that conditions inside a meat-processing plant can pose issues, even in different parts of one building.
“You have ambient temperatures in eviscerating areas, which are normally 55 to 60 degrees, and in picking rooms, which are usually around 70 degrees. Those are constant temperatures. Then you get into frigid temperatures, like freezers and coolers, and refrigerated areas like deboning areas, and that makes it challenging,” he says, adding that the thermal shock of washdowns in colder sections requires a certain type of flooring that can withstand such treatments.
Temperature is just one variable in a typical meat and poultry plant, adds Jeff Baker, sales representative for SlipNOT® Metal Safety Flooring, of Detroit, Mich. “It’s a mixed bag in these types of settings. The blood and grease, for example, can create a tricky situation from an environmental standpoint. The only thing similar is the oil and petroleum industry,” he points out.
In addition to slick substances like fat, oil, grease and blood that are associated with meat processing, exposure to organic acids caused by the breakdown of food byproducts is another concern when it comes to the life and effectiveness of a floor. Organic acids can eat away at a surface.
Food-safety problems also can be linked to floors, which can be considered a critical control point. The buildup of proteins, for example, can encourage the growth of potentially harmful bacteria. In addition, wet and humid conditions in some parts of a processing plant can be a breeding ground for microbes, in open floors as well as in crevices and drains.
In turn, steps taken to control bacteria growth and the development of mold and mildew impact flooring. Frequent cleanings and strong sanitizers take a toll on floors, especially on coatings or toppings. And, as more chemicals are introduced to the marketplace, flooring manufacturers and plant operators must ensure that surfaces are impervious to new types of sanitizers.
Beyond overcoming potential pitfalls stemming from the push for food safety, meat and poultry plant operators and those that supply floor systems must also contend with employee-safety issues. A wet surface or a floor covered with grease, fat and blood is a real hazard for employees and must be addressed in the type of floor material or finish.
Another factor in the choice of flooring in these types of facilities is the sheer impact of operations. Floors are in use every day, every shift, and are pounded with heavy equipment like forklifts and several lines’ worth of employees. “There are different traffic patterns for each environment, too. It can go from foot traffic to heavy traffic,” points out Patuka.
With so many parameters in play, as processors gauge their floor systems, they have a greater spectrum of options. Increasingly, meat and poultry operators are choosing to install different floors based on room function. Indeed, one specific flooring system is not likely to be suitable for all areas these days. “With technologies changing, now we can customize it even better. In thermal-shock areas, you could go with concrete, and in kill rooms or evisceration rooms you can go with an epoxy,” says Patuka.
To that point, along with the one-floor-doesn’t-fit-all philosophy, some processors are engaging suppliers to provide them with custom floor systems, with toppings and features unique to their operations and demands. “We’re definitely customizing our systems and listening to the voice of the customers,” relates Lipman.
Whether a floor system is custom-made or part of a certain product line, because such surfaces are so heavily used and affected by a range of factors, floor manufacturers regularly improve on existing materials and finishes, from basic brick and concrete products to polymer toppings to primers, sealers and grouts.
Due to the often varying and harsh conditions in meat-processing facilities, operators striving to protect their floors look for systems touted for durability, response to sanitation and food and worker safety benefits.
Brick floors, albeit more costly, are still the foundation of many meat and poultry plants, chosen for durability and longevity, sometimes up to the three- or four-decade mark. Maintenance is another benefit of brick flooring: if a brick is damaged, it can be removed and replaced, as opposed to damage on some monolithic floors.
Concrete floors, meantime, are considered more economical than brick and easier to install. Because concrete is a porous substance, though, the choice of a topping or coating becomes pivotal.
Vinyl and ester flooring systems bonded to concrete are one example of toppings commonly used in meat and poultry facilities. Some vinyl and ester toppings, like those from Tufco International, of Gentry, Ark., include aluminum oxide and higher resin levels for extra strength and safety.
Continuous, seamless epoxy coatings on concrete have long been used in the food processing industries as well, including dairy and meat and poultry plants. Newer generations of epoxies are on the market from suppliers like Atlas Minerals and Chemicals, a Mertztown, Pa. provider of corrosion-resistant mortars and grouts, floorings and linings. One of Atlas’ more recent introductions is a carbon-filled epoxy designed to be more chemically resistant and moisture tolerant.
At Advanced Surfaces, Patuka says that many food processors opt for the company’s epoxy surface called the Aro-Surf QC. “QC is a 1/4-inch to 3/8-inch surface utilizing the latest advancements in epoxy resin technology, employing the benefits of a faster cure and increased flexibility,” he notes, adding that epoxy is common in areas of a plant with constant, ambient temperatures that are not affected by thermal shock.
According to Patuka, the polyurethane concrete floor system from Advanced Surfaces is its most popular surface for the meat and poultry industry.
“Ucrete is a more dependable surface that is suitable for this industry, since it has exceptional thermal change resistance, raw materials that comply with food-safety standards and does not harbor the growth of bacteria,” he says.
Advanced Surfaces recently added to its Ucrete line with a new product called Iron Clad, a trowel-grade with steel aggregate. However, although it is highly durable, Iron Clad is not compliant with processing areas frequently treated with washdowns, since the steel can rust under water.
Another type of floor system used over concrete is cementitious urethane. According to Lipman, Dur-A-Flex is supplying more customers with cementitious urethane systems marketed under its Poly-Crete™ brand. Cementitious urethane is optimal for a variety of reasons, he says, from the initial strong bond to concrete during application to its protection from potential hazards. The trouble with multiple-layer systems like a typical epoxy or acrylic is that once topcoats are breached you can get into the more porous matrix, and once that is impregnated with cleaning solutions, oils or fats, that undermines the system and you get a quick degradation,” Lipman explains. “Cementitious urethane, by nature, is impervious in structure. Also, it’s not affected by hot and cold thermal cycling.”
Dur-A-Flex offers different grades of its Poly-Crete, including trowel-down, self-smoothing and self-leveling and vertical grades. More recently, Dur-A-Flex has added to its series of flooring systems with a new product. “If there are areas that don’t meet all the requirements of thicker systems, we are looking at systems that are thinner set. Maybe you have a dry storage area or packaging area where you want all the benefits of regular monolithic cementitious urethane, but this is a more cost-effective way of getting the benefits,” Lipman explains.
As another hurdle against contamination, Dur-A-Flex, as with other floor manufacturers, can enhance its flooring systems with antimicrobials. “The product has an antimicrobial additive, and these additives do not kill bacteria on contact but do allow bacteria to migrate through the system and prevent enzymes being produced that ultimately degrade the flooring system,” says Lipman of Poly-Crete.
The Sherwin-Williams Co., Industrial & Marine Coatings, headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, also offers a urethane cement system as part of its polymer flooring system line for food and beverage industries. Its FasTop M Flooring system, for instance, is made from a water-based, urethane resin and a proprietary cementitious mortar blend and is geared for areas with frequent cleaning, thermal shock and mild acid exposures. According to Jim Ratliff, a certified coatings inspector and a strategic account manager for Sherwin-Williams Industrial and Marine Coatings, the FasTop system responds well to wet and damp conditions in meat plants as well as to impact and heavy traffic. “High-performance competitively priced urethanes have upped the ante,” he comments, adding that in addition to areas prone to thermal cycling there are other benefits. “Their resistance to organic acids and alkalis protects concrete against the chemicals typical of food plants.” The floor system is low in odor and also cures relatively quickly, he adds.
Plant operators looking to minimize downtime for floor installations can evaluate if methylmethacrylate (MMA) resins are a suitable for their facilities. MMA floors can cure in one hour and are also designed for easy cleaning and maintenance and a strong bond with concrete, although it can be more sensitive to humidity and thermal shock.
Meanwhile, just as more stainless-steel surfaces and equipment are being used in meat and poultry plants for sanitation and durability purposes, such materials are also showing up in infrastructure like handrails, platforms and even flooring. SlipNOT®, for example, provides slip-resistant metal flooring products, including high-traction safety floor plates and stair treads, among other products that are effective in wet or oily surfaces like those common in meat and poultry plants. According to Baker, SlipNOT® utilizes a plasma stream deposition process applying molten metal to a metal substrate. “The material is either retrofitted into place or used in new construction,” he explains, adding that the products are fully weldable and offer a bond of over 4,000 psi with a surface hardness of over 55 on the Rockwell “C” scale.
SlipNOT® floors offer specific advantages, Baker says. “The difference is in the profile — because it is all metal, you don’t have to worry about particulates getting into the food stream. The profile itself also gives it the high-friction, slip-resistant system. And because it has a file-like surface, you can immerse it in oil or blood and no one would slip on it,” he remarks, adding that different sizes are available and the flooring can come from stock material or can be fabricated for any configuration.
Finally, for any type of floor upgrade or new installation, much of the performance and life span of a covering depends on preparation, whether it is the proper removal of any damaged or cracked flooring, abrasion treatments like shot-blasting, adequate drying time or other key pre-installation measures.