Future of food plant designs post-pandemic: Food plants just got “smaller”
Posted in: Food & Beverage
“Companies are going to come back to a different world where their workers have a heightened awareness about the risk of infectious disease transmission and how the building influences that.” – The Harvard Gazette
Social distancing is a new expectation that will pose a challenge for the typical food facility where square footage has always been a premium. Employee welfare spaces in food plants, such as locker rooms, cafeterias and employee gathering areas, were limited in space before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, employee welfare spaces previously considered less than ideal could constitute a health risk. Changing schedules to minimize employee contact between work groups is a logistical challenge food manufacturing plants must solve as well.
OSHA’s Three Lines of Defense
Engineering out all hazards can be difficult, expensive, or not possible, but administrative control and personal protective equipment (PPE) are not the most effective way to reduce risks either. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) indicates that administrative controls and PPE are less effective than engineered controls. As food processors in safety risk management leadership complete risk assessments to respond to the new normal, implementing engineering controls and solutions will be the strategic choice.
Should food companies prioritize capital spending for locker rooms, cafeterias, conference rooms, and other key building infrastructure that have typically been a lower priority for capital spending? Now may be the right time for several reasons:
- Pandemic Response and Readiness. While there is guidance from authorities, there may not be a consensus on the best pandemic-resistant practices for food plants for years. Current recommendations revolve around increasing hygienic design, so a systematic and logical approach is needed to get started. This can be done by creating a long-range plan that assesses all assets, with a focus on systematically upgrade aging employee welfare spaces and infrastructure.
- Retention and Hiring. The increased focus on these food plant areas and the potential health risks they can pose could impact employee retention and hiring. These employee welfare spaces send a message to employees about how a company values their people.
- Risk of Citation. Areas that are neglected or deficient pose a risk for employees filing an OSHA complaint and the employer being cited.
- Legal Action. Litigation may be a risk if an employee gets sick and a connection is made between building infrastructure and the illness. Even if the litigation is favorable for the employer, there is still the legal cost, management time, and negative media attention to consider.
- Reallocation of Spending. Capital spending for new product introductions will likely be delayed. Many processors are producing as much as possible, focusing on high volume products to fill the shelves rather than introducing new products. Food leaders may want to reallocate new product capital spending for facilities repairs or upgrades (i.e. temporary trailers for locker rooms and cafeterias can be rented while improvements or expansion are made in a factory).
While it remains unclear how long the new social distancing regulations will last, some of the updated process principles may be here to stay. If you look at how modern bathroom features have evolved, the design changes can be linked back to learnings from the last pandemic in 1918. Based on this history, it is reasonable to believe that the 2020 pandemic will advance current design standards in the food industry.
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