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COVID-19 Workforce Implications for Food Manufacturers

Posted on April 08, 2020

The food industry has been under immense pressure since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. Consumer panic-buying left retailers struggling to re-stock. According to Government ministers, industry members are responding by increasing their production by up to 50%.

As an initial contingency, companies have been recruiting additional employees to cover potential illnesses or absences. Intially, organizations were recruiting additional drivers. As the crisis progresses, companies are now looking to recruit across all production areas in packaging, dispatch, and preparation, with manufacturers ramping up production and some even moving to 24/7 operations.

With pubs and restaurants closing, expertise in the form of delivery staff will be available to redeploy to assist in other sectors. Recruitment drives will bring in new employees to train, while changes to operating patterns, shifts, and rotas will create a new working environment for all.

Large staff numbers working in close quarters, together with new working regimes, could put producers in danger of having to halt production if a member becomes infected. Driver shortages and lack of compliance-testing resources to ensure they are operating legally and effectively may also leave companies exposed in an already demanding environment.

Taking action now could help safeguard your business for the future.

Duties, responsibilities and actions

COVID-19 is classified as a biological agent under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002. As such, potential exposure through work activities must be carefully controlled.

  • Update Your Risk Assessment: The risk assessment should take account of the latest guidance from Public Health England and Public Health Scotland, and should be reviewed as advice changes. The employer must identify control measures which will eliminate or, where this is not possible, minimise the risks which emerge from the risk assessment as far as is reasonably practicable.  Your risk assessment is one part of your legal duties. More importantly, you must decide on your control measures and implement them. Once complete, you need to monitor the effectiveness of your controls – if you say two meters for social distancing, then through observation are people following it, and how do you enforce it?
  • Increase Communication: Increase communication and look to set up an employee consultation group.  The Health and Safety at Work laws require employers to consult with employees on matters affecting or impacting their safety – keeping people informed and engaged is a positive way to manage expectations and keep all employees on board. 
  • Health and Wellbeing Policies: Establish a policy and communicate it. Everyone has a different risk perception, employees who have vulnerable families will worry for their safety as much their own.  This should extend to include everyone in your workforce, from warehouse staff to those in customer facing, and logistics roles. During the COVID-19 pandemic, people are seeking clarity over what they must and must not do. Ask HR to review your existing processes and procedures and ensure they are effectively communicated.
  • Looking to Recovery: Start to prepare for the future. During times of uncertainty, it is often difficult to see the way forward. Consider your recovery strategy and planning for getting back to "business as usual". The actions you take now will ultimately affect you in the future in terms of reputation, brand, and image.

Your responsibility to your employees is paramount. The enforcing authorities have made their position clear regarding health, safety, and welfare. While the Government is changing its position frequently, following advice and guidance from experts around the globe, it is important that you reflect this evolving situation in your own working policies.

David Tate

Retail, Food & Beverage Practice Leader, UK & Ireland