Health, safety of employees essential for food processing operations

April 09, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As it has become clear that COVID-19 will be present at some level in the United States for a long time, food processing establishments — facilities that process, pack or hold food for human consumption — have put into place controls to minimize the risk of the disease among their personnel.

“With the danger of the novel coronavirus upon us, food establishments have been implementing controls that help minimize the risk of COVID-19 among their personnel and the local populace,” said Martin Bucknavage, senior food safety extension associate in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences

Because the coronavirus is highly contagious, preventing the spread of COVID-19 is a challenge for food processors, Bucknavage noted. When an employee who has COVID-19 coughs or exhales, he or she releases droplets of infected fluid. Most of these droplets fall on nearby surfaces and objects — such as desks, tables or telephones. Co-workers can catch COVID-19 by touching contaminated surfaces or objects and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth.

If an employee is standing within 6 feet of another who has COVID-19, he or she can catch the disease by breathing in droplets coughed out or exhaled by the infected employee.

“To this point, food processing operations mostly have been successful in avoiding shutdowns due to ill workers,” said Bucknavage. “Acting on recommendations — based on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration —will go a long way to ensuring an adequate food supply at the grocery stores.”

Bucknavage said the following recommendations pertain to any facility that is processing, packing or holding food for human consumption. This includes both U.S. Department of Agriculture-regulated facilities that process meat and poultry and U.S. Food and Drug Administration-regulated facilities that process food.

Enhanced sanitary environment

— Promote regular and thorough handwashing by employees, contractors and customers. Provide soap and water and alcohol-based hand rubs in the workplace. Ensure that adequate supplies are maintained. Place hand rubs in multiple locations or in conference rooms to encourage hand hygiene.

— Routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, countertops and doorknobs. Use the cleaning agents that usually are used in these areas, and follow the directions on the label.

— Provide disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces such as doorknobs, keyboards, remote controls and desks, can be wiped down by employees before each use.

Employee training

— Emphasize staying home when sick.

— Instruct employees to clean their hands often with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol alcohol, and encourage hand washing with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. Soap and water should be used preferentially if hands are visibly dirty.

— Practice proper coughing and sneezing etiquette, including covering one’s mouth and nose with a tissue and disposing of the used tissue in a wastebasket; coughing or sneezing into your upper sleeve, not your hands; and remembering to wash your hands after coughing or sneezing. CDC also recommends that food workers use face coverings to restrict aerosols.

— Employees who are well but have a sick family member at home with COVID-19 should notify their supervisor and refer to CDC guidance about how to conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure.

— Emphasize the need for as much social distancing as possible for a given operation. Social distancing means keeping the recommended distance of at least 6 feet between individuals — that’s two to three arm-lengths — and must become standard practice.

scrubbing at plant

Food processing operations should routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, countertops, cooler doors and doorknobs.

IMAGE: Penn State Extension

Actively encourage sick employees to stay home

— Employees who have symptoms, such as fever, cough or shortness of breath, should notify their supervisor and stay home. Sick employees should follow CDC-recommended steps. Employees should not return to work until the criteria to discontinue home isolation are met, in consultation with health care providers and state and local health departments.

— Ensure that your sick-leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of these policies.

— Talk with companies that provide contracted services or temporary employees to your business about the importance of sick employees staying home, and encourage them to develop nonpunitive leave policies.

— Do not require a note from a health care provider for employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness to validate their illness or to return to work, as medical offices and facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely way. Employers should be aware that more employees than usual may need to stay home to care for a sick family member and should maintain flexible policies that permit workers to do this.

— Separate sick employees. CDC recommends that employees who appear to have acute respiratory illness symptoms — cough, shortness of breath and so forth — upon arrival to work or become sick during the day should be separated from other employees and be sent home immediately.

Visitors and meetings

— Try to conduct meetings with people from outside the company via conference call or web-based conferencing apps.

— Restrict meetings to only those who are essential for operations.

— Ask visitors and contractors to sign a form documenting that they do not have symptoms or knowingly have encountered someone who has symptoms.


— Develop a plan for what to do if someone becomes ill with suspected COVID-19 at one of your workplaces, including how to exclude or isolate them. Contact your local health authority to help identify who may have contacted that employee.

— Prepare for possible increased numbers of employee absences due to illness in employees or their families; dismissals of early childhood programs and K-12 schools due to high levels of absenteeism or illness; or a quarantine imposed on employees due to contact with a sick individual.

— Plan to monitor and respond to absenteeism at the workplace, and implement plans to continue your essential business functions in case you experience higher than usual absenteeism.

— Cross-train personnel to perform essential functions so that the workplace can maintain operations even if key staff members are absent.

— Assess your essential functions and the reliance that others and the community have on your services or products. Be prepared to change your business practices if needed to maintain critical operations. This could include identifying alternative suppliers, prioritizing customers or temporarily ing some of your operations.

— Increase inventories of finished goods in the event of decreased capabilities or increased demand.

— Increase inventories of ingredients and materials that may come in short supply, but do not buy more than you need. This includes gloves and sanitary supplies.

— Consider focusing production on main-line items that can be run more efficiently.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 10, 2020