Processing Line: Keeping safety in site
A processing line applied to meat production goes something like this: animal comes into plant, gets slaughtered, comes out as a piece of meat in a package. However, as in most things in life, it is not as simple as that; the production line of a major meat processor is noisy, dangerous and tiring work and a desire to put profit over safety is an extremely risky strategy, as the negative media coverage of a tragedy or a food scare can have a long-lasting effect.
Hence, a processing company's core is its production management, which can potentially mean the difference between keeping a company out of the media altogether and having an unfortunate splash in a Sunday paper. Processing line working conditions have been a topical subject in the past couple of months, but processors seem to have been either unaffected by the negative coverage or have yet to articulate their views on the work they are doing to make their lines happy, safe and productive workplaces to operate in. But the pressure to be more open is building.
The Equality & Human Rights Commission's (EHRC) report into the recruitment and employment practices of the UK meat and poultry sector in March was always going to be a bad headline waiting to happen. Yet it was hardly picked up by either the national newspapers or the nation's politicians. The inquiry related humiliating accounts of pregnant women and people with bladder problems on production lines not being allowed toilet breaks, while around one-fifth of interviewees were alleged to have told the inquiry that they had been pushed, kicked or had items thrown at them by line managers.
The accounts in the study are endless, but a meat processing line is not like any other manufacturing production in the food business sphere. The pressure, the bloodiness, the constant whirl of cutting blades, robotic arms and freezing conditions are seemingly a world apart from many other manufacturing lines. So clear and coherent production management to look after staff, give them more than adequate working conditions and supply them with the right number of breaks and rests, without making them feel guilty that they are slacking, is vital.
What is clear, though, is that if processors keep silent over working conditions, then it leaves the door open for the more polarised viewpoints to fill the void. For example, the Animal Aid exposés, with a number of secret camera installations producing evidence of sloppy practice in abattoirs, have stimulated the subsequent negative media attention.
With the EHRC report to be reviewed in March 2011, the gauntlet has now been thrown down to the supermarkets, work agencies, processors and their relevant representative bodies "to encourage a systematic change in behaviour". The main changes, though, will be mainly down to one particular profession the production manager.
Holding the line
To run an effective processing line and to realise many of the EHRC's recommendations, a lot of pressure falls on the production manager, whose lot is already tough. A production manager's key role is to co-ordinate all the people and equipment involved in the manufacturing process: they plan, direct, and co-ordinate the production activities required to produce the goods on time; they make sure that production meets output and quality goals, while remaining within budget; they devise methods to use the plant's personnel and capital resources to best meet production goals; they may determine which machines will be used, whether new machines need to be purchased, whether overtime or extra shifts are necessary, and what the sequence of production will be; they monitor the production run to ensure it stays on schedule; and they correct any problems that may arise.
2 Sisters Food Group spokesperson Nicola Chambers says that, for the chicken processing firm, the company agrees production flows with each of its customers, as well as critical control points, which are audited by the client as well as independent third parties. The floor workers also go through intensive training. "All our people undergo a half-day induction and a 13-week 'buddy' training schedule, after which they begin additional training in food hygiene."
For 2 Sisters, hygiene starts with line design, Chambers adds, to ensure that the intended product flow runs in the optimum direction and reduces any risk of cross-contamination. The machinery used is manufactured in high-standard stainless steel for ease of cleaning. Processing lines are then cleaned to a schedule that includes a 'clean-as-you-go' policy, as well as daily night time and regular deep cleaning. "Once lines are rinsed and sanitised, detailed hygiene inspections or microbiological swabbing is conducted to verify hygiene standards."
Part of a production manager's job is to come up with ways to make the production process more efficient. Traditional factory methods, such as mass assembly lines, have given way to "lean" production techniques, which give managers more flexibility. In a traditional assembly line, each worker was responsible for only a small portion of the assembly, repeating that task on every product. Lean production, by contrast, employs teams to build and assemble products in stations or cells. Thus, rather than specialising in a specific task, workers are capable of performing all jobs within a team. Without the constraints of the traditional assembly line, production managers can more easily change production levels and staffing on different product lines to minimise inventory levels and react more quickly to changing customer demands.
Broadly speaking, production lines fall into two categories, according to an article by Sabry Shaaban and Tom McNamara on behalf of the ESC Rennes School of Business in France. This is either paced or unpaced. For paced lines, work pieces move from one workstation to another on a mechanically paced line at a constant speed. On unpaced lines, work pieces move along the line, either manually or with the assistance of a mechanical device, such as a conveyor belt or a roller. Production lines can also be operated as 'push' or 'pull' systems. In push lines, an individual station processes another unit, as long as there is a supply of work in front of it, while in pull lines, production of another unit starts only when a downstream station asks an upstream station for another work piece. An efficient 'lean' Japanese production method, based on the pull line system, is known as Just in Time (JIT) or Kanban. Here, floor space and work in process (WIP) are kept as low as possible hence the term 'lean'. The main goal is to cut waste at every stage of the production process. JIT lines usually make use of small lot sizes, leading to a substantial reduction in WIP.
Not only do production managers have to decide which system to operate, but they must also monitor product standards and implement quality control programmes. They make sure that the finished product meets a certain level of quality and, if it does not, they try to find out what the problem is and solve it. If the problem relates to the quality of work performed in the plant, the manager may implement better training programmes or reorganise the manufacturing process, often on the basis of suggestions from employee teams. If the cause is substandard materials from outside suppliers, such as poor-quality meat, the production manager will work with the supplier to improve quality.
Production managers also work closely with other managers in the firm to implement the company's policies and goals, as well as with the firm's financial departments in order to come up with a budget and spending plan. But they work the closest with the heads of the sales, procurement and logistics departments. The procurement department orders the animals or meat that the plant needs to make its products and a breakdown in communications between the production manager and the procurement department can cause serious slowdowns and a failure to meet production schedules. Most production managers find they divide their time between production areas and their office. Usually, the time in the office is spent meeting with subordinates or other department managers, analysing production data, and writing and reviewing reports. It is also a job that requires overtime on many occasions, with production managers working extended hours, especially when production deadlines must be met. In facilities that operate around the clock, managers often work late shifts and may be called at any hour to deal with emergencies. This could mean going to the plant to resolve the problem, regardless of the hour, and staying until the situation is under control.
At 2 Sisters, to avoid accidents, the starting point is to assess the new machine on the production line. The company trains the engineers, operatives and cleaning staff, so that those dealing with the machinery are suitably aware of the safety requirements, and all the machinery is safety-checked each morning before use.
Northern Irish meat processor Dunbia has a health and safety campaign called SOD IT 'See it, Own it, Do something about it' in its production line. "The campaign encourages employees to be aware of their own safety and the safety of their colleagues in all departments," says Dunbia marketing manager Karen Birnie. "The campaign works extremely well and has developed an ethos where employees actively 'SOD IT'. We also have a suggestion box scheme, where employees are encouraged to put forward ideas of how safety in the workplace can be improved. Often, employees see small things that can make a big difference."
Dealing with production workers, as well as superiors, when working under the pressure of production deadlines or emergency situations can be stressful. Corporate restructuring across the industry in general has eliminated levels of management and support staff, thus shifting more responsibility to production managers and compounding the stress.
But while the life of the production manager is tough, many of the companies that supply equipment and services to improve the factory floor are aiming to make it just that bit easier. Below are a selection of latest innovations in many of the key processing areas.
Conveyor belts are frequently taken for granted in meat processing, yet they are a critical element; connecting the beginning of the process (for example, de-boning) right through to the end (for example, slicing or packaging), according to belt solution provider Habasit Rossi.
"The performance of conveyors can make a real difference to the overall efficiency and safety of a plant," says key account manager Keith Perks. "As such, the sector as a whole stands to benefit from some measurable improvements by re-assessing its conveyor and belting set-up. For example, do they perform well enough when it comes to minimising product waste, safeguarding product quality and minimising maintenance and downtime? And importantly, dothey stand up to the strict hygiene standards demanded?"
To fully maximise the potential output of a facility, meat processors are encouraged to ensure they select the right conveyor belt for the right application. Whole life costs, maintenance and downtime, as well as whether a belt is really suited to the application that it is intended for, are all areas for consideration.
Plastic modular belts are apparently a popular choice for the meat industry, as they can be used in a wide range of belting applications. Made from injection-moulded thermoplastic modules and connected with solid plastic rods, the all-plastic design promotes long life and superior performance in many applications. Hygiene is also a high priority for meat processors, so it is vital that conveying solutions meet these stringent standards.
Habasit Rossi recently launched the HyCLEAN system, a new plastic modular belting solution specifically designed to meet the most demanding hygiene requirements, while delivering tangible cost savings and improvements to process and performance.
The HyCLEAN package features a new sprocket and 2-inch flat-top module, together with a clean-in-place (CIP) system, which makes cleaning procedures in food processing areas a much more straightforward process, says the firm.
Habasit Rossi has also introduced the Habasit Cleandrive, which it describes as a new belting system combining the latest fabric and plastic modular belt technology to create a new generation of product, specifically developed to support hygiene-sensitive food processes and applications. It is said to combine the easy clean benefits of fabric belting with the low-tension, lower maintenance and lower wear and repair costs of modular plastic alternatives.
Walkways between lines and machines are a hotspot for accidents, so it is important for the production manager to ensure the pathways are clear, clean and irrefutably differentiated. One solution from Sentry Protection Products is the Sentry Guard Post, launched this year, to demarcate plant walk-through paths. The Sentry Guard Post can be filled with ballast for example, sand or water to increase stability and can also be attached with fasteners into a floor, dock, or any other flat base.
The ability to stop a machine and turn it on safely is another safety headache for a production manager. Human error is the biggest cause of accidents leading to injury to operating or maintenance personnel and this is often the result of memory lapses, insufficient operator knowledge or lack of training. So it is important to ensure a safe sequence of events is followed whenever a hazardous operation is undertaken. Trapped key interlocking systems are said to be a simple, but very effective technology that will ensure a safe system of work is followed when operating dangerous machinery or working with dangerous processes. Trapped key interlocking forces personnel to follow a predetermined sequence of tasks, which ensure that all the hazards and risks associated with the process are controlled. Examples include opening and closing valves in a pressure-relief system in the correct sequence or preventing access into a robot cell until the machinery has stopped.
Companies that operate in this market include Castell Safety International and French company SERV Trayvou Interverrouillage (STI). Castell's Salus20 is a trapped key isolator switch, capable of switching 20 amps. Meanwhile, STI has launched the NXO1LTC, an access interlock with personnel key. It consists of a lock with two key slots that work on a free-key/trapped-key basis. To gain access to a dangerous area, the operator has to first insert an isolation key into the lock portion. Turning this key releases the personnel key, and allows the bolt to be removed and the door opened. The operator retains the personnel key while inside the dangerous area. This prevents the door being shut behind them and also stops the machine from being restarted by another person.
This is the real meat-and-potatoes of any processing line. Without the blades and lasers, a meat processing plant really cannot claim to be a meat processing plant. Icelandic firm Marel's recent work with two European meat companies shows the advancements being made in portioning, deboning and trimming. In Norway, Marel worked with meat producer Fatland, which needed a machine to cut fixed-weight steaks and pork chops. Using Marel's I-Cut 55, the portion cutter is said to produce accurate portions by means of its 3-D vision system, which provides 360-degree scanning of the product, thereby avoiding unseen areas and shadow effects. Adjustable V-belts and product holders reduce movement during the cutting process, ensuring precise, consistent portions and optimal yield.
Meanwhile, demands for increased performance, enhanced processing and better production for Finnish meat processor Snellman led to a renovation in deboning and grading at one of its facilities. So it asked Marel to install a full pork deboning line, covering the entire process from deboning to packing. The line consists of a primary cut-up station with in-weighing, deboning and trimming flowline, and weighing and grading units. Production control software provides tracking and quality inspection and delivers a complete overview over the entire production, with detailed reports on yield, throughput, quality, and performance. The line is said to have helped reduce salvage and improve the utilisation of higher-priced items. In addition, it is claimed to offer better ergonomic configurations with great quality control while giving management the tools to manage the operation better.
According to Simon Spencer, MD of Loma Systems, a supplier in metal detection, checkweighing and X-ray inspection equipment, it is prudent to install inspection systems at strategic points at the end of the production line. "No matter when or where metal contamination, over- or under-weight and missing products can or might take place, good quality management ensures that no flawed product ever reaches the market. Consumer protection is of primary importance to food processors and their clients, which also relates to brand integrity and a business' bottom line."
Spencer adds that manufacturers who use foil or metallised film packaging for their products find X-ray highly advantageous over metal detection. Traditionally, metallised film and foil packaging has presented a challenge for conventional metal detectors, due to the packaging material itself containing metal, the very contaminant you are trying to detect. The metal in the packaging creates a significant effect on the signal generated by the product as it passes through a metal detector. He says: "This generally means that for metallised film packaging stainless steel sensitivity is relatively low, typically 4-6mm, before it can be detected. For foil packaging the signal generated is so high that it overloads a standard metal detector and the only available option is a bespoke Ferro-search metal detector that is only capable of detecting ferrous metals. When you consider that most food production factories utilise stainless steel throughout for hygiene reasons, you can see that, where foil or metallised films are used, metal detectors are of limited benefit. X-ray machines, on the other hand, operate by inspecting the density of the product and packaging, and, as the foil or metallised film is generally very thin, it has little or no effect on the overall density of the product."
Spencer feels that, for most applications, an X-ray machine will outperform a metal detector by identifying the size of the metal contaminant and any additional dense contaminant, while ensuring product integrity. Furthermore, standard X-ray machines can inspect with no loss of performance at line speeds. "Loma's X-ray systems are designed to operate continuously at speeds in excess of 600ppm or 90m/min sufficient for most production lines," he adds.
Meanwhile Ishida Europe, which had roots initially in weighing, now focuses on a complete solution in the processing and packing lines, says marketing manager PR and exhibitions Torsten Giese. He says more people are looking for automation. "They want a weighing process to reduce giveaway and be consistent. They want to reduce label costs and hygiene issues with more hands-off operation." Ishida now specialises in a wide range of equipment, from weighing machines, such as multihead weighers and checkweighers, to packing machines, including bagmakers and pick-and-place systems. This year the company has also launched a Data Capture System for processors, which logs data from everything going through a checkweigher and generates real-time displays and reports, demonstrating just how sophisticated inspection is becoming.
Many processors aspire to extend shelf-life, using fewer additives, while maintaining fresh taste and nutritional qualities throughout the product's life. And high-pressure processing (HPP) could be the answer to make that dream a reality. HPP is a cold pasteurisation technology that can be used for cooked meats and ready meals.
The benefits are that products can be treated in-pack, with pressure acting uniformly and instantaneously regardless of the size or shape of product, causing lethal damage to the cellular structure of bacteria, moulds and yeasts. Shelf-life can be doubled or tripled, it is claimed, and traditional preservatives can be reduced and, in some instances, removed completely.
Sensory changes that may take place during heat treatment are minimal or nonexistent with HPP, allowing products to maintain a 'fresh' taste throughout shelf-life.
"HPP is already well-established in many countries, where it is used predominantly as a cold pasteurisation process for pre-packed cooked meats," says Interfood Technology HPP technical manager Rob Habgood. "Although the interest has been around for some time in the UK, it has taken a while for it to be adopted, but now it is being used commercially here, the level of interest has certainly gone up a notch.
"The cost savings made through the development of this new machine helps to bring the technology within the reach of medium-sized processing operations."
Interfood has therefore announced the extension of its equipment range, following the launch of the new Wave 6000/120, claimed to be the first HPP equipment in the world to offer two integrated and independent high-pressure intensifiers. It is designed for SMEs who require consistent production, but who want to minimise the initial investment, with a smaller footprint than other machines within the range, making it particularly suited to facilities where space is at a premium.
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