Specific to meat and poultry processing plants, the U.S. CDC in association with OSHA has published interim guidance for employers and workers1. There are special challenges that these facilities face, mainly because of the sheer numbers of workers who are generally confined to close working quarters. Generally, these workplaces are designed from an engineering perspective to slaughter, harvest, process and package meat and poultry at high rates of speed by workers who are in a relatively stationary position and remarkably close to each other. The guidance follows the traditional hierarchy of controls, including engineering and administrative controls.
Specific engineering controls include the following:
- Increasing distancing between workers to maintain 6 feet. Typically in these facilities there is “across the line” work in which workers stand or sit at their work stations on both sides of a conveyor belt or processing line This work practice will need to be temporarily avoided. This change in approach will require a natural decrease in the “line speed” (rate of conveyor belt or processing table movement of product).
- Increasing use of barrier materials between workers. Plexiglass or curtain suspensions placed between workers can greatly decrease the opportunity for dispersion of respiratory droplets..
- Increasing the number and locations of handwashing stations or availability of hand sanitizer.
Specific changes in administrative controls:
- Maintenance of single file movement. These large facilities traditionally have allowed mass movement of groups of workers from entry to donning of personal protective equipment to positioning on the workplace floor. Instead, single file movement with spacing at a minimum of 6 feet is suggested. This approach will lead to a longer than normal period of time from plant check-in to arrival at the assigned work location.
- Staggering of shift workers, break times, and meal breaks. One way of decreasing person to person contact risk is to stagger these activities throughout the work shift.
- Cohorting of workers to separate groups can reduce the number of different individuals coming into contact with each other in the workplace. This approach may reduce the need for quarantining of workers who may have come in contact with an ill individual.
- Elimination of opportunities for close contact of individuals such as in carpooling to and from work and in use of mass transit vehicles. In many locations, these are popular and efficient means of mass transportation of workers to a facility, but in this environment, alternative means should be used if possible.
Most meatpacking workers are used to wearing some forms of protective equipment, regularly including the use of smocks, arm coverings, gloves, cut guards, hair nets, hard hats, etc. Use of face shields can also help to reduce transmission in these environments. In addition to the above, provision of paid sick leave can help to ensure that ill employees do not report to work.
Meat and poultry processing facilities are already used to daily cleaning and sanitizing practices that are critical to the safety of workers and the products they prepare. Increased frequency of cleaning and sanitizing can also be considered as a means of providing an added level of protection against illness by reducing potential contact transmission.
A challenge to the implementation of these changes is the ability to effectively communicate their importance in an environment in which workers speak several different native languages. Thus, appropriate educational and translational measures need to be put in place, with the added benefit of video or visual illustrations to provide emphasis.