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By Anne Bruce

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Hse, Industry

Severed fingers, crushed skulls, exploding offal cookers and slips trips and falls: is it a House of Horrors freakshow? No, it's a list of just a few of the recent accidents in the food and drink manufacturing sector.

Figures from the regulator for workplace health and safety the Heath and Safety Executive (HSE) indicate that food and drink production has an above average injury rate: 1.6 times greater than in other manufacturing sectors.

That could be expensive for some food and drink businesses as government spending cuts come into effect. That's because the HSE is looking at ways to pass more costs on to 'high-risk' businesses.

The Department of Work and Pensions has told the HSE that it will need to make savings of 35% over the 20112015 period, following the government's Comprehensive Spending Review last October.

So why is food and drink manufacture such a comparatively hazardous sector? How is the industry improving its record and what does the future hold as the government cuts come into effect? Judith Hackitt, HSE chair, said recently that the HSE was working on a "fee for fault" proposal. The idea being that those companies that are found not to comply with the law during an inspection should be charged for the work that the HSE does following the issuing of a notice or other requirement for action to rectify the fault.

The HSE also provides non-statutory advice to businesses on what is required and what good practice looks like. However, it is considering where and how it might charge businesses for advice and consultation.

A decision to close two HSE regional offices Preston and Manchester has already been made as part of a review of its property portfolio. Other offices are being looked at in the same review. No details are available of how this might impact on the inspection regime.

The HSE incident contact centre and Infoline phoneline contracts also end later this year and arrangements following the contract end are still to be confirmed. All government websites are under review through the Cabinet Office, including the HSE's website, according to a spokeswoman: "It is early days and we can't say anything about what will be done."

Unsettling time

With all these changes coming down the line, it is an unsettling time for food manufacturers' health and safety departments after a decade in which injury rates have been falling.

But the HSE is pressing ahead with its business in the food manufacturing sector, according to Richard Morgan, head of the food and drink manufacture section at the HSE.

He says that the HSE has been working closely with the food industry for the past two decades to identify the main causes of injuries and has been successful in reducing them.

The total number of major injuries during the last year was 856, down from 1,418 in 2001/2, for example.

Fatal injuries averaged nine a year for the four-year period prior to 1990 in the food and drink sector. This reduced to an average of 3.5 a year between 2000-2010. The latest figures show two fatalities in this current year.

There has also been a 50% drop in overall injury rates for food and drink manufacture from 1990/91, when the HSE launched its 'recipe for safety' initiative to 2009/10 (from a rate of 2,800 to around 1,400 a year).

The changes started in 1990 when the HSE identified that food and drink sector had 2.3 times the manufacturing average injury rate. It set up industry steering groups with trade unions and industry bodies to tackle the problem.

Common Strategy

A Common Strategy document was put in place, with action points for companies as well as trade associations and the HSE to reduce injuries and occupational ill health. This document was last updated in July 2004. A new update of the Common Strategy was scheduled to be put together last month (March), the plan being to reduce the reportable injury rate in the food and drink sector to that of manufacturing generally and eventually below it. Morgan explains that the food industry is more exposed to health and safety problems because it is much more labour intensive than other manufacturing industries and tends to be less automated.

He says: "A salad suppler to the supermarkets might arrange a salad one way for one client and a different way for another, and the product spec might change frequently. It is not worthwhile to mechanise this process; also many delicate foods, such as lettuce, tend to be damaged if handled by machine."

So where the factory floors in other sectors might look like a sea of robots, in the food and drink manufacturing industry you have people everywhere. And, with that, the potential for human error.

The most common type of major injury in the food and drink sector was a slip or a trip in 2009/10, with 309 incidents. Falls from height accounted for 117 incidents and machinery 112, according to HSE figures.

The environment on a food production site means that there is more risk of serious injury if you slip says Morgan since you might slip into a vat of boiling fat, for example.

Meanwhile, repetitive jobs such as putting biscuits in boxes, arranging salads and screwing lids on jars contributes to upper limb disorders and back injuries that comprise almost 60% of the occupational ill health cases currently recorded.

Insurance issues

Health and safety remains one of the key concerns for insurers in the food sector, says Tim Astley from Zurich Risk Engineering UK. Accidents are seen as the second biggest risk after production problems, he says, followed by labour unavailability and skills shortages and then natural disasters.

Phil Grace, liability risk manager of insurance company Aviva, states that insurers expect all employers or policy holders whatever size their business to practise good risk management, to be legally compliant and use best practice approaches to the identification and management of workplace health and safety risks.

He says: "It is possible that cuts in HSE funding might impact on the management of risk across UK businesses, however, it is impossible to predict the impact of cuts. Remember that employers have clearly defined legal responsibilities and common law claims for damages have further defined the civil duties."

Greencore's safety, health and environment manager Tom Chambers says his firm works hand-in-hand with its insurers and with the HSE to ensure best health and safety practice.

Although the chilled sector in which Greencore operates is comparatively low risk, insurers are involved in the design and planning of all major projects.

The insurance moderator needs to be happy with the level of risk presented, he says.

He comments: "We value our relationship with the HSE; we have had a lot more support than we anticipated, and we have a very proactive inspector."

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) believes that budget cuts will not significantly impact on the health and safety record of the sector as it argues that solid structures are now in place.

An FDF spokesman comments: "A culture change has already occurred in our industry with regard to health and safety. Most companies, including small manufacturing enterprises, place health and safety at the top of their agenda because of the consequences on employees' well being and business productivity if there isn't an adequate company policy in place. The HSE just needs to maintain the momentum of improvement seen in our industry; this can be achieved with lower levels of investment than we have seen over the last few years."

Best practice sharing

The FDF also argues that information on company health and safety procedures is more readily shared between companies as it is widely perceived as a non-competitive aspect of the business.

"The HSE, therefore, only needs to keep in place a platform to facilitate best practice sharing. The Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and other similar organisations, along with business, should be able to plug the gap in any additional funding required to organise networking events and research,"​ says the spokesman.

However, as the HSE and the food industry put together a Common Strategy for 2011 onwards this month they will need to make sure that it is one that allows the momentum of improvement to be maintained.

The sector still has above average injury rates and so there is no room for complacency on health and safety.

Related topics: Dairy, Frozen, Meat, poultry & seafood

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