Concerns are rising with regards to the safety of employees in factories, particularly in food processing plants. It has been reported that data from the Office for National Statistics (up to 20 April 2020) found that plant workers in England and Wales were almost 6 times more likely to die from Covid-19 than the average worker.

We have heard that three workers from a South Yorkshire meat processing plant have sadly passed away after contracting Covid-19. We have also seen worker ‘walk-outs’ in some plants and the Guardian has reported that almost half of the Covid-19 hotspots in the US are linked to meat processing plants; increasing fears of workers in the UK who are being asked to continue working or to return to work in factory settings.

What is the guidance for food processing plants?

Guidance can be found on the government website.

The guidance says:

Food safety practices in food processing plants should continue to be delivered to the highest hygiene standards including the use of some personal protective equipment and frequent hand washing.

All employers are expected to follow social distancing guidance, including food businesses, as far as is reasonably possible. Where the production environment makes it difficult to do so, employers should consider what measures may be put in place to protect employees. Once staff have left the food processing areas and removed protective clothing, social distancing and further hand washing guidance should be adhered to.

Social distancing should be adhered to ‘as far as is reasonably possible’ which arguably, leaves room for interpretation and discrepancies between individual plants. If social distancing is not possible, then employers should put protective measures in place, but such measures will be down to employers to decide on and provide. On the whole, employers are working hard in an unprecedented and extremely difficult situation. However, we have heard some reports of employees feeling very unsafe at work and being told to carry on working if they want to keep a job; safety vs finances.

What protection should be put in place?

If you work in a factory setting, your employer could be taking the following steps to adequately assess and address the risks in your workplace:

  • Allow any administrative workers to work from home and reduce the number of people that are in the workplace;
  • Look at using additional or separate entrance and exit points;
  • Separate the factory floor into zones and do not allow employees to move into other zones;
  • Put up physical barriers where social distancing is not possible, eg screens;
  • Ensure employees do not share equipment, eg tools are assigned to individual employees for their use only;
  • Arrange staggered breaks;
  • Ensure social distancing is followed in canteens and break out areas;
  • Look at toilet facilities and how to limit the number of employees using them at a time;
  • Use visual guides in the workplace to ensure employees are reminded to socially distance;
  • Ensure employees are spoken to and their concerns are taken on board.

Whilst no employer can eliminate the risk of Covid-19, they must show that they are doing what they can to minimise the chance of transmission for employees in their course of employment.

Further guidance can be found on the HSE website.

If you require legal advice regarding safety at work, returning to work, illness at work or otherwise; you can contact Farleys on 0845 287 0939. Farleys are now providing a free legal advice clinic online, whereby individuals can book in a free appointment to discuss their issue confidentiality with a solicitor, either via video call or telephone. Please do not hesitate to get in touch. Call 0845 287 0939 or send your enquiry online.