Food Industry and agriculture workers are amongst the occupations most severely affected by excess deaths due to COVID-19. Throughout the United States, the cases of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) have surged in almost every state, largely as a result of the emergence of more neutralization-resistant variants of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

A new study published regarding Food Industry on the preprint server medRxiv* discusses the measures that should be taken to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 among food industry workers.

To this end, the researchers found that if proper precautions are taken, food industry professionals can keep themselves safe against COVID-19, even as new variants arise.

Background

The food industry in the United States is critical to nutritional security for the American population. Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, the supply chain was disrupted, which lead to both labor and market shortages in the market, reduced production, and poor productivity due to increased absenteeism.

The impact of COVID-19 on the food sector led to the consideration and application of numerous public health interventions to protect these workers. Nonetheless, COVID-19 outbreaks across the U.S. food industries led to over 90,000 infections and 450 deaths between April 2020 to July 2021.

This makes it necessary to understand the needs of this sector, and the responses necessary to meet them.

Both the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have been involved in implementing non-pharmaceutical guidelines such as biosafety norms, social distancing and face masks, as well as workplace surveillance, in their efforts to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2. However, data on compliance with these guidelines is scarce, and relevant studies are both early and limited in their scope.

Study Aims

The current study aimed to define the needs of the United States food industry in COVID-19 mitigation and how current strategies were being applied in the workplace. To do this, the researchers designed an assessment survey that was administered between January and April 2021.

What were the findings?

A total of 79 useful responses were obtained from the survey. Of these 79 participants, 48% were from the dairy industry and 22% were from fresh produce. The remaining 28% of participants worked in other food industry sectors including those that produce chocolate, frozen food, wine, and cereals. Only two of the responses were obtained from beef/pork industry sources, whereas three participants reported working with all four primary food industry sectors. Notably, no participants reported working in the poultry industry.

A majority of the survey responses were provided by food safety and quality directors, managers of the facility, and a few executives. Approximately 85% of the survey participants indicated that their sector had been significantly impacted by COVID-19. The most common ways in which COVID-19 impacted these sectors include:

  • Changes in the staff pattern
  • Protective guidelines implemented at work
  • Remote work for all but essential workers
  • Reduced production.

Most participants described their sector plants as employing up to 250 persons. The responses showed that up to 15% of staff could be reduced without impacting production capacity over a week. One in ten of these plants provided temporary housing or transport to employees.

Labor availability

To maintain the stability of their production processes in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak, 75% of the participants claimed to favor extending work hours for the healthy remaining workers. Comparatively, 61% said they would shift people around to make up for large personnel gaps.

Over the long term, 72% of participants agreed that mechanization was an ideal long-term solution to maintain production if COVID-19 led to chronic shortages of people in the future. Another suggestion was that the employee and production schedules should be adjusted to keep production high during these possible situations.

Many participants indicated that both the availability of labor, as well as the complex and always-changing government regulations were very concerning. These concerns differed greatly from those surrounding product quality, lack of backup capital, and the potential for workers to misuse protective guidelines, all of which were only slightly concerning for most survey participants.

Survey participants reported the compelling need to train or hire workers to ensure skilled labor, in addition to having a worker reserve. The fact that managerial staff was cut back in favor of expanding production capacity left many workers feeling “stretched thin” and “overwhelmed,” due to the lack of operational supervisors to ensure things were running smoothly and efficiently.

Specialized jobs were most likely to be shut down, along with engineering and maintenance crews, as well as sanitation and cleaning workers.

Source News Medical Net

By Arsalan Ahmad

Arsalan Ahmad is a Research Engineer working on 2-D Materials, graduated from the Institute of Advanced Materials, Bahaudin Zakariya University Multan, Pakistan.LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/arsalanahmad-materialsresearchengr/