Food manufacturing shows why Risk Assessments are no substitute for unions - COVID-Secure Check

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Food manufacturing shows why Risk Assessments are no substitute for unions

February 2021

Protection from Covid outbreaks in food manufacturing sites is best achieved by an active workplace union alongside a comprehensive employer risk assessment policy.

With refrigeration units pumping cold air down lines, noisy machinery forcing people to shout, difficulties in maintaining distance on production lines, poor sick pay policies and groups of workers often travelling in collective transport, food manufacturing -- and meat processing plants in particular - have been badly affected during the pandemic.

In just the last two months, the following incidences were reported:

  • January 2021

    • The 2 Sisters poultry plant in Coupar Angus was continuing work as normal despite 5 workers testing positive for Covid. Last August the site in South Lanarkshire had to halt production for 2 weeks after a number of employees caught the virus.
  • December 2020

    • Greencore's Manton Wood facility in Bassetlaw Nottingham was hit by Covid.

    • 79 positive tests after an outbreak at Bakkavor's Tilmanstone plant in the South East. A worker died following the outbreak, as well as two who has previously died of the disease there. There are 900 workers at the factory which manufactures salad products.

    • An Irthlingborough food production company has confirmed that employees have tested positive for Covid-19. Whitworths, based in Wellingborough Road, specialises in dried fruits, nuts and seeds for snacking and baking.

    • Eight workers at the Farne Salmon plant in Duns, in the borders, have tested positive for Covid-19

The real picture could be even worse. A recent report showed that unscrupulous employers were reporting Covid-19 infections at food factories as 'community cases' rather than workplace cases to the HSE's Riddor reporting system.

There is also fear amongst the workforce about speaking out about conditions. Another disturbing report in Personnel Today revealed that one-fifth of employees found themselves out of a job after making their fears known or asking too many questions. In one case, an employee at a meat processing plant was told not to wear a face mask at work and when he raised concerns about the lack of social distancing, he was dismissed.

Union success

However, it's not all doom and gloom. In January 2020 workers from the Greencore Moulton Park food processing factory were named as 'unsung heroes' of the pandemic by Northamptonshire County Council.

The members of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) were acknowledged for their efforts to improve staff safety, after the factory, which makes products for Marks & Spencer's, was hit by a major Covid 19 outbreak in August 2020. Nearly 300 staff got sick during the outbreak, which was the second to occur at the site.

After the crisis, the on-site union ramped up its activities producing safety notices, leaflets and Facebook statements in different languages, and holding weekly health and safety meetings. The aim was to ensure compliance with the company's risk assessment policies and that there were no further outbreaks.

Describing the \"Rose of Northamptonshire Award\" as "historical", BFAWU branch secretary George Atwell said: \"The union and its members have worked tremendously hard this year and I\'m privileged to represent this site and the branch. Our members have worked extremely hard to tackle the pandemic and work with the company to support workers."

A general lack of transparency around risks

Whilst the Moulton Park factory mentioned above was not the only site owned by Greencore Group, a major producer of convenience foods, to have suffered an outbreak, the company has at least been clear about its policy for controlling the spread of Covid.

While it is low on procedural detail and does not state who will be responsible for its implementation, it has at least made it public. It lists measures the company will take to maintain social distancing and protect worker wellbeing, control contagion risk via reducing contact during travel and supplier visits, as well as how it aims to implement the measures through a new management standard and governance.

You can access Greencore's company level risk assessment here.

However, this is still highly unusual, despite the many outbreaks in the food industry. Of six other major UK food companies where there have been Covid outbreaks only one has made a Risk Assessment public.

Other major food companies forced to close due to outbreaks What does it do? Published Covid Secure Risk Assessment Y or N?
2Sisters Food Group Poultry No mention on website
Bakkavor Group Plc Fresh prepared Says RA carried out at 25 factories but these are private
Moy Park Poultry No mention on website
Cranswick Country Foods Meat, poultry, convenience Yes
Kober (owned by Asda) Meat Owned by Asda which has no RA
Rowan Foods (Oscar Mayer) Prepared Private

The importance of unions

The work by the Bakers' union members at the Greencore plant is evidence that a transparent Risk Assessment policy, while important, is not enough on its own. An active site-based union is a vital defence against risks to health and safety, as well as the means for guaranteeing Covid-secure policies are fully implemented. The sector is not heavily unionised, though GMB, Unite and BFAWU all have recognitions or membership across a number of major food employers. All have been actively organising to improve safety during the pandemic, and this shows in the results they have been able to achieve for members.

Recent wins by unions on this issue include Unite members winning full pay for self-isolating at a Bakkavor plant in Newark. Around 150 workers previously only received Statutory Sick Pay of £95.85 a week forcing many to work when potentially affected. Now, after pressure from the union, all 1600 workers at the plant will receive their full basic pay for the two weeks they are off. GMB have also won similar increases at the Bakkavor plant in Dover following a serious outbreak last year.In another example, following a health and safety scare at the Gainsborough site of Nobel Foods early on in the pandemic, workers got organised also with Unite and won trade union recognition, giving them a solid voice in what happens to them down the line.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, unions have also pushed the government to do more to enforce the two metre rule in food processing, but government advice has not made this mandatory on production lines for example.

As TUC General Secretary Frances O\'Grady says: "Ministers urgently need to update the guidance for food production. They must require employers to publish their risk assessments. And they must resource the HSE properly, so it can get into food factories and crack down on unsafe working."

What can you do?