Get the recipe right: Keep seasonal workers safe in the food and drink industry

Author: Matthew Elson, CEO, SHE Software

More than 60,000 seasonal workers plant, pick, grade and package around nine million tonnes of fruit, vegetables and flower crops in the UK every year.

Food and drink is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector and statistically also one of the most dangerous – but positive steps to improve health and safety within the industry could prevent injury in around 70 per cent of incidents.

So, how can the industry keep these workers safe?

Any approach needs to take account of three important factors.  First, seasonal workers face a wide variety of risks – from machinery, hand implements (e.g., knives), ergonomics (crouching, lifting), exposure to irritants, slips and trips.  The management of most risks involves human factors: communication and engagement with employees is key.

In any case while it is important to document the risks, their sheer variety means that the industry is dependent upon employees embedding safety thinking in their day to day activities.

Second, a high number of seasonal workers come from overseas – in horticulture, 75 per cent come from Romania and Bulgaria – making language a hurdle for both employers and workers alike. Some workers will not speak English as a first language, or indeed, at all.  This creates further challenges for employee engagement.

Third, food industries may also require some to work alone, in remote locations or across several sites. They may also be subject to unsociable hours, without recourse to office-based support staff, and unable to access paper or office-based systems and documentation.

As a result, traditional approaches to safety management are not fit for purpose.  Paper based systems or online SharePoint libraries documenting policies, procedures, risk assessments and safe systems of work are inaccessible, and in any case may not be available in native language.

Apart from the obvious challenge in disseminating information and guidance, such an approach does nothing to support the engagement needed to embed safe behaviours.

Fortunately, technology provides part of the solution in the form of intuitive smartphone or tablet apps. Relevant content can be pushed to an app based on the activities to be performed on a given day.  This could include training materials, information on hazards and how to avoid them and relevant policies.

The exercise can conclude with a point of work risk assessment, or perhaps just an acknowledgement that the worker has read the materials.

What is more, an app can offer multi-lingual functionality as well as photos and diagrams, breaking down barriers to communication and perhaps highlighting potential consequences that the worker will be keen to avoid.

Being simple and intuitive, such an app is readily adopted, helping to make safety a normal part of the routine as opposed to an administrative burden.  This supports efforts to embed a safety culture – ensuring safe behaviours to manage the multitude of lesser risks that it may not be practical to document and communicate.

Obviously, there isn’t a ‘magic wand’ to solve every health and safety challenge when it comes to seasonal workers. Technology alone will not solve the food and drink industry’s problems, but it is a step in the right direction. Presenting relevant information and guidance in an intuitive format could not only protect seasonal workers, but could save their lives, too.


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