Safety in mind

With about 170 major injuries and 1,000 other injuries reported every year, the meat industry is one of the most dangerous sectors in the food and drink industry. Cutting, slicing and dicing equipment can be the cause of lethal accidents, and manufacturers are always innovating to improve safety on their machines.

Ashley Fox, managing director of Freund UK, says: “Safety is a very important factor in all processors’ decisions, so we try to build in extra safety features on our machines.”

Safety concerns are more important in the UK than in other countries, going even further than legal requirements. “Ironically, the legislation in the UK is not particularly more stringent, but it is the British industry that is more honest, more complying with the guidelines,” says Roger Hamby, director of research at the Cutlery Allied Trade Research Association (CATRA). 

British Meat Processors’ Association (BMPA) director Stephen Rossides believes the attitude of UK processors towards safety follows the general high standards in place in the meat industry. “We have generally high food, animal welfare and processing standards, so it doesn’t surprise me,” he says.

Meanwhile, Rob Unwin, divisional director at Interfood, has noticed that 
UK processors tend to comply more with EU legislation than other member states. “UK interpretation of EU health and safety legislation is more stringent 
than elsewhere. It’s all about interpretation, the UK is quite high-profile and non-compromising when it comes to that,” he explains.

Peter Hurrell, sales manager for Treif UK, sells machinery both in the UK and in the rest of Europe, and finds that UK safety standards are higher than anywhere else. “The UK’s requirements always seem to go beyond our colleagues in the rest of Europe. Sometimes, our clients ask us for additional safety features here in the UK. For example, in case of an emergency stop, they ask that the machine become completely dead, instead of just stopping it, meaning that electrical interlocks usually need to go further. It is not about legislation — it has more to do with each customer’s own requirements,” he adds.

Marel technical director Richard Seager points out that UK processors must comply with Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations (PUWER), set out by the Health & Safety Executive. “Our UK customers’ environment is very much ruled by PUWER and they take it very seriously, they know they are expected to show diligence in that area,” he says.

Decline in accidents

Maybe because of these high standards, accidents have dropped dramatically in the past 10 years. According to statistics by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), 29 accidents were reported by butchers and meat cutters in 2010/2011, compared to 94 in 2002/2003. Yet safety is not an area for complacency, and the BMPA has just released updated guidance (see page 27) for the meat industry.

Rossides explains: “Everybody is increasingly conscious about safety in plants and our health and safety guidance can help people with that.”

One of the things the BMPA guidance highlights is the importance of training. “All new employees should receive basic induction training, covering such things as company rules, individual responsibilities, first-aid, fire and emergency procedures. All health and safety training and assessment sessions are to be documented and included in the employees’ training records,” the document says.

In addition to induction training, processors must ensure employees are trained to use specific equipment, especially when they buy new machinery. “We pride ourselves on how good our training is on-site. We perform level training for operators, trainers, hygiene people and in-house maintenance people. Our UK customers can receive on-site training or attend our training programme in Germany,” Hurrell says.

Hamby points out that while workers in the red meat industry generally come from a butchery background, in white meat plants a lot of employees are unfamiliar with knife technology and therefore need enhanced training. He says: “Our instruction manuals emphasise safe use and have a training section, but sometimes larger factories, which purchase one or several machines, ask us to come on-site and offer training to their operators, so we give one-on-one training in the use of the particular machine we sell: how to use it correctly, various safety procedures, basic knowledge of the sharpening technology and basic maintenance of the machine.”

Fox adds that Freund UK uses training to ensure maintenance is at its highest standards. “We work with the processor to make sure the maintenance team is aware of the cleaning schedule to keep the machine safe, and we also train operators to use the machine safely, so our training covers maintenance and safe use,” he says.

Interfood offers training at a fully dedicated centre in Germany to avoid compromising production at the plant to train operators. “We offer a full package, including installation and training of operators, hygiene people and engineers,” Unwin says.

At Marel, trained operators even receive a certificate of competence. “We also offer Service Level Agreements, which guarantee regular, correct maintenance, including safety checks performed by our own people. Any problems are noted and customers made aware. We keep records of our machines in the field, including service history,” Seager adds.

The company is also focusing on clear signage that is understandable by employees of all origins. “The meat sector is an industry that requires complex machinery and, in contrast, operators who use the machines tend to be low-paid workers coming from foreign countries,” says Seager. Marel machines feature touchscreen, colour-coding and minimum text, and all warning signs are boldly displayed. “We cannot afford a misunderstanding when it comes to safety,” he adds.

Training can be complemented with particular safety features on cutting, slicing and dicing equipment. Freund recently launched the Endeavour trimming knife range, with an on/off system requiring a two-hand start. Fox says: “When you let go of the handle, the cable clicks out without falling out, so when you want to start the knife, you have to click the cable back in and then pull the handle. The operator cannot pick it up while it is still running. We have had a huge deal of interest in it.”

Marel has also been working on interlocks to ensure safety. Each one of the company’s machines features a unique key interlock that requires three keys to be removed in a sequence before the machine can be opened. “It is an improvement from electrical guard switches, as it is easy to understand and is more resistant to chemicals. Our machines face rigorous cleaning with aggressive agents and, over time, the solution can break down the plastics, which is dangerous for the electrical circuit,” Seager says.

Freund’s Endeavour range of trimmers also features adaptive handles for a more comfortable use, reducing the risk of repetitive strain injuries (RSIs). “When someone operates on a handle that is too thick or too thin for a long time, it can become a safety problem,” Fox adds. “All our knives are built to EU standards on vibration, noise, etc, but the adaptive handle is an extra safety feature.”

According the BMPA, musculoskeletal disorders, including RSIs, are the first cause of work-related illness in the UK, and this is particularly problematic in bigger-scale plants, where operators work on the same machine all day. The association recommends scheduling regular breaks to limit muscular pain.

Stay sharp

In cutting, slicing and dicing machinery, keeping blades sharp at all times is essential. According to Hamby, at least two-thirds of processors underestimate the importance of sharp blades in the industry.

“One-fourth to one-third of processors realise that a sharp knife gives high yield and productivity and reduces the risk of RSIs, but at the opposite end, there’s a whole group of them that do not understand the importance of knife-sharpening in their sector, which is rather strange and surprising,” he says. “A blade that’s not sharp enough will require more energy, reduce yield as slices will become more messy, and increase the risk of RSIs, so it is very important from an environmental as well as a safety point of view.”

The BMPA guidelines also insist on the importance of sharpening blades to avoid RSIs. “Apart from the fact that sharp knives are safer to use, they can also greatly reduce the force that needs to be applied to make a cut,” the document says. However, the association points out that knives should not be used when sharpening has reduced them to thin narrow blades that can pass through protective aprons or snap under pressure.

On machines with an enclosed blade, such as bowl choppers, the size of the opening is of the utmost importance, and is strictly regulated. For example, all bowl choppers should be protected by a hood that extends to the width of the machine and to at least half the bowl diameter. “The legislation cannot get any tighter. Our machines follow the traditional requirements — with a moving blade inside, which is virtually totally enclosed and with only a small opening for the blade to pass into the machine to be sharpened,” Hamby says.

PPE standards

At the moment, EU legislation requires the use of a protective glove on the hand holding the meat, but some companies have tightened their personal protective equipment (PPE) standards. According to the HSE, one company started providing knife-proof arm guards and gloves for the non-knife hand, as well as knife-proof aprons, after a worker received a serious hand injury when using a sharp hand knife to debone meat.

Marel supplies guards to place on the blades before removing them, but still recommends the use of PPE for maintenance staff, especially when working on bandsaws.

All Interfood machinery has enclosed blades, reducing the risk of accidents, but Unwin warns that maintenance people and engineers are still at risk when working on the machines. “Our slicers are fully enclosed, so we don’t need to recommend personal PPE. We only do so for people who can access the blades for maintenance,” he says.

The BMPA advises only using PPE as a last resort to protect against health or safety risks, but recognises that it can be a practical solution when combined with other control measures. The association’s health and safety guidance specifies that all PPE equipment should be CE-marked and comply with the requirements of the The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992.

“The CE marking signifies that the PPE satisfies certain basic safety requirements and, in some cases, it will have been tested and certified by an independent body. This helps to ensure the equipment is fit for purpose and suitable to reduce the risks. Only then can a manufacturer display 
the CE mark on the product,” the document reads.

Training is crucial when it comes to ensuring the safety of meat plant employees, but the quality of the machines used is just as important. Processors should ensure all machinery complies with EU legislation and compare the various features specific to each brand before making a purchase.

Once installed, maintenance is essential, and blades must be sharpened regularly. PPE, such as chain mail aprons, gloves and arm guards, is not indispensable with enclosed blades, but should be used with knives and during maintenance. By following these simple measures, meat processors can prevent dangerous accidents, and avoid costly injuries.

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