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The current health emergency has impacted all our lives and presented numerous challenges to businesses in every sector of the economy. Many essential industries – such as medical equipment manufacturing or food distribution operations – must juggle unprecedented demand with employee safety and observing government social distancing measures. In this series of articles, we share tips and information about what you can do to enhance hygiene, protect your workers and optimise operations during these difficult times.
Here at A-SAFE, we are doing everything we can to support the Herculean efforts of manufacturers, warehouse and logistics operations as they keep the nation fed and supplied with essential products and equipment. Even in times of crisis, employees need to be kept safe at work. This is why we are ensuring that access to advice and effective workplace safety solutions are available wherever and whenever they are needed. We have kept our production lines operating around the clock to meet the demand of our customers as they respond to the crisis. However, we have also made some changes to enhance hygiene on our sites and protect our own employees. We hope these measures – together with some additional tips – will serve as inspiration and useful guidance to ensuring best-practice safety and hygiene at your facility during these challenging times.
Social distancing is one of the most powerful weapons we have in the global fight against COVID-19. By staying away from other people, we reduce the risk of catching or spreading the virus. Contact between people, airborne droplets (from coughs and sneezes) and surface contamination are perhaps the most common vectors for spreading coronavirus infections such as influenza and COVID-19. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), somebody suffering from COVID-19 is able to infect between 1.5 and 4.5 other people. Staying home is by far the best protection from the risk of infection; however, this is not possible for everyone all the time. Essential workers need to go to work to treat the sick, keep us fed and the nation supplied with life’s essentials, while everybody needs to leave the house occasionally for groceries or to exercise. Public Health England recommends that in all such instances, we should observe a minimum distance of two metres between ourselves and anybody from outside our immediate household.
In the industrial workplace, social distancing can create a number of challenges: for example, production lines can frequently have multiple people working in close proximity to one another – especially if the end product is something complex or intricate with lots of manual assembly stages. Then there are packing stations in warehouses and distribution centres: these are often closely spaced and open plan to enable employee cooperation. Pedestrian walkways can also be problematic for social distancing, as few of them are sufficiently wide to allow pedestrians to safely pass one another while keeping a distance of two metres. So how do you overcome these challenges and minimise the risk of the virus passing between employees?
An effective starting point is to consider things like shift patterns, breaks and starting times. By staggering when people start on shift, you can reduce the number of employees using communal areas such as locker rooms at any one time. Likewise, encourage people to take breaks at different times to promote social distancing. If practicable, split staff into teams and across day and night shifts to reduce the number of employees on site. Where staff are split into teams, as much as possible try not to vary the individuals within each team so that if contact is unavoidable, it is always with the same people.
It is not always possible to increase the physical space between personnel or workstations along production lines without physically moving machines or disrupting processes. In such instances, there are still a number of ways you can reduce the risk of infection passing between individuals. According to UK government advice for manufacturers, one approach might be to reposition workers so that they face away from each other or work side-by-side on production lines rather than face-to-face. This reduces the possibility of airborne infection passing between workers through exhalation, coughs and sneezes. Where possible, install screens between production line workstations. These provide a physical barrier that prevents micro droplets passing from one workstation to the next. Hygiene screens should be easy to keep clean, and transparent to facilitate communication and an unimpeded field of vision.
Hygiene screens are equally effective in the warehouse and distribution environment, where teams of packers often work in close proximity at packing stations. In general areas where space is less of an issue, taped floor markings can be a useful reminder to maintain a safe distance from colleagues – especially if these are reinforced with clear signage throughout the facility. This has been one of the robust measures we have taken across all of our A-SAFE facilities.
An essential consideration is also the risk of surface cross contamination. The WHO is unclear on how long precisely COVID-19 can survive on surfaces; however, it believes that the virus will behave in a similar way to other coronaviruses, “Studies suggest that coronaviruses (including preliminary information on the COVID-19 virus) may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days. This may vary under different conditions (e.g. type of surface, temperature or humidity of the environment).” Materials handling equipment such as pallet trucks and FLTs are frequently shared between multiple employees, so it is vital to ensure that touchpoints on this equipment are regularly sanitised. Consider things like steering wheels, buttons, fork controls, seatbelt buckles and grab handles.
Walkways are a common feature of most industrial facilities. The Health and Safety Executive already recommends that these should be segregated from vehicle and materials handling traffic, ideally with some sort of physical protection such as a safety guardrail. Even if no segregation infrastructure is in place, pedestrians must remain within walkways when moving around a facility to reduce the risk of coming into contact with vehicles. Therefore, deviating from an unprotected walkway – for example, to allow two metres when passing someone coming the other way – elevates the risk of accidents. Walkways protected with guardrails prevent such deviations; however, as with unprotected walkways, they frequently do not have the width to allow people to pass one another if social distancing is being observed. The solution to this problem, and one that we have implemented here at A-SAFE, is the introduction of a one-way system. Supported by signage, safety guardrails and floor markings, a one-way system ensures that employees can more around safely and without the risk of encountering a colleague coming the other way.
When it comes to designing a one-way system – or indeed traffic management during business as usual – the British Standards Institution PAS 13 Code of Practice provides useful guidance on what to consider. PAS 13 is the only set of independent standards specifically developed to address the implementation and testing of workplace safety infrastructure. It was developed over two years in partnership with the Health and Safety Executive and a steering committee of engineering experts, leading businesses and safety guardrail manufacturers, including Jaguar Land Rover, Nestlé and DHL. The first section of the document is dedicated to all aspects of pedestrian and vehicle traffic management within busy workplaces. It explores the optimum routing of pedestrian walkways, as well as the appropriate protection from vehicle impacts. It considers everything from the positioning and control of pedestrian crossing points to installing the right strength of guardrail for the weight and speeds of vehicles in operation. It is extremely important to consider such factors when creating walkways or re configuring safety infrastructure to implement a new one-way system. Inadequate safety guardrails or unprotected walkways substantially increase the risk of accidents and pedestrian injuries.
This is as true during times of crisis as it is during business as usual. Indeed, in these times when manufacturing and logistics workers are going above and beyond to feed the nation and supply vital equipment to the COVID-19 response, there is an even stronger moral and operational case for ensuring that they are properly protected from injury while at work. Such incidents have profound implications both for those involved and the employer. Moreover, the wider disruption of an accident can be severe, interrupting production and stopping the supply of critical goods and services at a time when so many people are depending on them.
Social distancing is just one of many ways to keep your employees safe and productive during this difficult time. However, it is only part of a suite of measures. Hygiene and cleaning – at the individual, facility and equipment levels – are hugely important to reducing the risk of viruses spreading and it is this that we will be exploring in the next article in this series.