The hazardous nature of food processing plants

In 2014, a large UK food manufacturer had to pay an £800,000 fine after a serious industrial accident. An engineer was trapped by the machinery while examining a conveyor belt and suffered major injuries and ongoing nerve damage. Accidents such as this are widely reported, but many people are unaware of the number of hazardous areas found in food and beverage processing plants.  Here Darcy Simonis, industry network lead for ABB’s food and beverage segment, explains the safety procedures that must be developed in these processing plants.

Across the globe, there are a variety of different regulations for food processing plants. In particular, North America and Europe have strict regulations for safety in these potentially dangerous environments. This also applies to the safety of employees in the processing plants and employers who fail to make adequate safety considerations can face large fines. Not only can these authorities enforce these in the case of accidents, they can also be enforced during regular inspections.

In Europe, the Machinery Directive 2006/42/EC requires machinery to be designed and built so that it can be used safely. In food processing plants, there are many dangerous machines for which plant managers should follow safety regulations, or the plants may face closure or high fines. Machines such as decanters exhibit high centrifugal forces during operation, and it is not unknown for the machine’s g-forces to reach more than 2000 times gravitational force. This is clearly a dangerous environment for employees to work in, however as these machines are essential for production, the key concept is the management of risk.

In the 1970s, the increase in heavy machinery such as the creation of the steel press led to increased safety guards. Since then, many safety conscious companies undertake a risk analysis in the initial stages of machine development. In the case of decanters, it is not possible to remove the risk, but it is possible to mitigate the risk to an acceptable level by putting safety guards such as enclosures or emergency stops into place.

The hazardous nature of a food processing plant is especially affected by the need for hygiene, the continuous working of the plant and the high turnover of staff. To comply with hygiene regulations, plants need to be constantly washed down, meaning that despite safety guards, equipment needs to be accessible, which adds additional risk.

Due to the high demand on food and beverage production facilities, plants often run 24 hours a day and continuous operation means there is little time for maintenance and repairs to be carried out. In the food industry, it is during breakdowns when injuries occur. Workers, faced by high targets and strict deadlines, may attempt to repair equipment themselves or even override safety guards to reach into machines and risk injury in the process. It is therefore vital that, regardless of high production targets, employees are well educated in the company’s safety policies and the equipment`s safety features.

Despite overall labor turnover falling in Britain over the last five years, there is a notoriously high turnover of staff in food and beverage processing plants. This presents an additional complication to the hazardous areas. Employers are often reluctant to spend time training staff on safety procedures, but then run the risk of having employees who are not sufficiently up to speed.

The UK’s food processing industry employs 117,000 migrant workers from the EU, which supplies the sector with the necessary labor. However, language barriers and a high turnover of staff can indirectly create safety hazards. It is vital that plant managers communicate safety measures more effectively to reduce the risk to non-English speaking employees — all of which can be done by using visual displays or by placing new staff members alongside more experienced employees.

Wherever you look across the food processing industry, hazardous areas exist. Safety guards need to put in place from the very start of the food chain, such as in the milking process. In milking parlors, exposed platform rollers must be guarded to avoid clothing or employees becoming trapped. Hazards are present throughout the plant, from the handling of the raw material, to production — where industrial ovens can often reach very high temperatures — to the final packaging of the product ready for transportation.

Breweries are a particularly strong example of the hazards present in the food processing industry. The dust generated in the conveying, sieving and milling of malt grains can form flammable dust clouds. This creates a potentially explosive environment, officially classifying the environment as a hazardous area. This means that ATEX ratings must be observed on all equipment used in these facilities.

Later down the line, carbon dioxide, a dangerous by-product of the fermentation process, can be fatal if inhaled. Workers have died while trying to perform repairs or checking fermentation tanks, becoming overwhelmed by CO2 almost immediately. This means that companies should use suitable sensors and locks to separate workers from the tanks, while also educating workers on the associated dangers.

In the beverage industry, particularly in breweries, packaging and filling is one of the most dangerous places in the processing chain. The speed of operation and high quantity of goods being moved increase the risk of things going wrong.

In the beverage industry, glass bottles are commonly filled at high speeds and at high pressure, meaning the bottles could explode if the machines are incorrectly programmed. As these beverage plants are operating under high time pressures, it is not possible to completely stop the production line for receptacles to be changed. Instead, the filler operates at a slow speed, allowing the operator to change the bottle or can. By integrating sensors that can monitor the speed of the machine, companies have the ability to implement emergency stops in the case of a breakdown or safety issue.

Often, organisations find it too difficult to manage the complex world of safety regulations and procedures alone. In this case, it is always better to consult a professional rather than fail to comply with the regulations, as this will work out to be a costly mistake. ABB’s experts can provide detailed advice on regulations in specific countries, which also takes into account the needs of food processing plants.

As companies become more knowledgeable about regulations and regulations become more stringent, the need for retrofitting old equipment with additional safety measures will rise. Although it may seem instinctive, where there is a dangerous moving machine, the safest answer is not always to shut it away behind an enclosure or barrier.

In the food processing industry, companies should consult with functional safety experts that have experience in the sector. The experts will, for example, suggest equipment such as a light grid, which performs a local controlled safe stop when the light grid is actuated. These devices are more appropriate for the food processing sector than using physical guards or barriers, as they allow easier access for maintenance and washdown, which is essential for hygiene in food processing plants.

Functional safety experts are also able to advise on the use of safety programmable logic controllers (PLCs), rather than traditional PLCs. Safety PLCs, such as ABB’s Pluto, are designed to help companies comply with functional safety regulations such as IEC61508 and IEC61511. Safety devices can be connected directly to the PLC, which monitors equipment such as light curtains. By using the PLCs, companies can meet the rigorous standards required in the food industry.

Managers of food processing plants across the globe, regardless of the country’s regulations, should prioritize plant safety. Not only must plant managers comply with regulations to avoid the plant being closed by authorities, they also have a duty to protect their employees.

Plant managers are aware that they manage very hazardous areas and the risks cannot be completely avoided. By working with specialist safety consultants, plant managers should be more aware of what they can do to mitigate risks, all the while considering the specific needs of the food and beverage industry.