The food and drink manufacturing industry is broken down into a number of small sectors, ranging from slaughterhouses, sugar refineries and grain mills to malt manufacture and whisky distilling. Each will have their own set of risks to the employee and need to have a strict health and safety policy in place to prevent sickness and injury.
The main causes of illness in the food and drink industries are:
- Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) mainly comprising work-related upper limb disorders (WRULDs) and back injuries
- Work-related stress, which can be caused by poor work organisation
- Occupational asthma caused by inhalation of bakery and grain dusts
- Occupational dermatitis from hand-washing, contact with foodstuffs, etc.
- Rhinitis caused by irritant dusts such as bakery and grain dusts, spices and seasonings
- Noise-induced hearing loss where noise levels exceed 85 dB(A)
The main causes of injuries are:
- Manual handling/musculoskeletal injury
- Slips on wet or food contaminated floors
- Falls from heights
- Workplace transport (including forklift transport)
- Struck by something (e.g. sharp knives or falling objects)
There are a number of factors to consider when developing an effective occupational health management policy.
As an employer, you have a legal and moral obligation to do whatever is humanly possible to safeguard the health if your workers. To do this, you have to identify the possible causes of the ill health. In most cases, the causes are obvious; the presence of heavy machinery, dust and noise.
It is important to determine not only who is exposed to these risks, but also to what degree they are exposed and what the consequences could be. Measures must then be put in place to mitigate every risk.
In terms of the law, the Chief Health and Safety Inspector can at any time ask an employer for a report of safety precautions.
Monitoring sickness absence
Information obtained from tightly-managed attendance can be very useful in spotting possible work-related health problems. If there are certain jobs or parts of the workplace where absence is higher, this may be an indication of a problem. For example, high incidences of back pain may be associated with certain types of work.
Listening to the workers
A lot of information can be gained from the employees themselves. Workers may be reluctant to admit to health problems if they think it might damage their job prospects or if the information is sensitive. However, to ensure an honest response there are a number of ways of collecting their opinions confidentially.
Legislation states that there should be one employee safety representative for every 50 employees. The representative may want to take responsibility for gathering and communicating this information.
Managing the risk
Where possible, removing the hazard is the best option. Relying on being protected by protective clothing and equipment should normally be a last resort.
Responsibilities of employees
Workers must take responsibility over their own health and safety at work by following all health and safety rules and precautions. They must report any unsafe circumstances or accidents as soon as possible, to the safety representative. Anyone who acts in a reckless way or damages any safety measures, especially if he does this on purpose, can be sued by the employer.
Even if everything possible is being done to prevent healthy and safety risks at work, there will be occasions where someone does become ill. The initial cause of their health problem may not be work related, but the consequences still need to be managed.
It’s possible that someone might develop backache or a stress-related illness outside of work, but if they work in a job that involves heavy lifting or that is very intensive, there is a real chance that their condition will get worse and turn it into something more serious. This could mean that the person can longer perform his duties.
Assessing occupational health needs
An assessment of risk can identify the main activities and situations likely to be harmful to health so you can then decide how to meet these occupational health needs in your company. Often, the process of managing occupational health only requires good communication between managers and workers.
Source: Department of Labour – www.labour.gov.za