Challenges Amid a Pandemic

COVID-19 is changing the way food and beverage manufacturers manage their cleaning processes and products, accounting for social distancing and increased sanitation requirements.

Cleaning and sanitation in the food processing environment has always been about food safety. But the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic—bringing with it changing requirements in distancing, personal protective equipment (PPE), and levels of sanitation—turned much of that focus increasingly toward worker safety as well. Products and procedures have adapted to meet the new demands, expanding the reach of sanitation beyond the equipment itself and finding innovative ways to keep employees further apart from one another.

Pandemic or no, food manufacturing facilities around the globe have for years faced a constant push to do more with less, according to Stephanie Castro Faucetta, food safety specialist for Commercial Food Sanitation (CFS). “To achieve increased production and throughputs, many plants we visit are trying to shorten sanitation cycles while simultaneously battling staff shortages,” she says.

Many plants are trying to shorten sanitation cycles while simultaneously battling staff shortages during the pandemic.Many plants are trying to shorten sanitation cycles while simultaneously battling staff shortages during the pandemic.That already problematic situation has gotten even more complex amid pandemic concerns, not only because of workforce shortages but because of increased requirements as well. “Staffing has become even more challenging because of the high number of people out sick or quarantining,” notes Clara Pan, also a food safety specialist with CFS. “In some cases, facilities may have to clean additional things like shields or curtains used as dividers as well as perform additional sanitizing or disinfecting. Employee health has shifted to a No. 1 priority for most facilities.”

Expanding reach

Though steps for cleaning food processing equipment and the surrounding environment have remained mostly the same, there have been new cleaning concerns introduced within pandemic regulations, Faucetta notes. “We have seen increased frequency of disinfecting high-touch surfaces like equipment control panels, door handles, bathrooms, and breakrooms,” she says.

Madison Chemical had previously focused primarily on cleaning capabilities for food processing equipment and the surrounding environment. Once the pandemic hit, though, the supplier had to make sure its customers could not only continue to get that done correctly but also put increased focus on common areas such as breakrooms and bathrooms. “There was a big shift in what we were providing our customers,” says Brad Sims, food division team leader for the supplier. While keeping up with demand for the plant floor, Madison Chemical also started supplying more general sanitation products such as hand sanitizer and surface disinfectants for offices and cafeterias.

This is a demand that Sims does not see going away. “They’ve started thinking more about how an unsanitary desk in somebody’s office can affect operations,” he says. “I don’t think that thought process is going to go away.”

ProClean Surface Disinfectant was released amid the pandemic to sanitize against the coronavirus and other viruses and microorganisms.ProClean Surface Disinfectant was released amid the pandemic to sanitize against the coronavirus and other viruses and microorganisms.Madison ChemicalThe supplier also added some ready-to-use solutions to clean and disinfect surfaces specifically for the coronavirus. By May this year, Madison Chemical had introduced ProClean Surface Disinfectant for hard, non-porous and inanimate surfaces in food processing and other industries to kill the human coronavirus and other viruses and microorganisms.

PSSI designed a COVID-19 Playbook that explains all the procedures to mitigate risk associated with the virus, including PPE requirements with specific demands for particular jobs. “If, for example, the job demands fogging/misting procedures, the specific PPE requirements and procedures are laid out, including the different examples of respirator programs in response to COVID-19,” says Candy Lucas, senior food safety director at PSSI.

A variety of cleaning and disinfectant methods are used to effectively mitigate COVID-19, Lucas notes. “We first conduct routine preventative COVID-19 cleaning and disinfectant procedures, utilizing our established best practices,” she says. “With our customers, we then identify all potentially affected areas needing mitigation cleaning and disinfectant applications. We designate team members with appropriate PPE to effectively fog/mist the potentially affected areas within the facility prior to conducting our 8 Steps of Wet Sanitation. For added protection against the spread of the virus, we also deploy the 8 Steps of Dry Sanitation to all communal areas after areas are fogged/misted during high-risk mitigation situations.”

PSSI uses its 8-Step Sanitation Process to effectively clean food processing environments to mitigate COVID-19.PSSI uses its 8-Step Sanitation Process to effectively clean food processing environments to mitigate COVID-19.PSSI

The service provider’s 8-Step Sanitation Process and microbial hazard mitigation process have been proven by third-party labs to effectively prevent and remove the SARS-CoV-2 virus across all surfaces, Lucas notes. “We’ve supported hundreds of food processors over the years, including the development of successful mitigation plans for some of the industry’s most complex microbial issues,” she says. “This includes a comprehensive sanitation strategy for food processors around the most recent COVID-19 pandemic.”

The pandemic has broadened the scope that many sanitation product and service providers offer throughout a facility.The pandemic has broadened the scope that many sanitation product and service providers offer throughout a facility.PSSIPSSI’s Food Safety Solutions and Chemical Innovations teams work together to develop customized plans. For COVID-19, they integrated PSSI products such as PCI Pure Hard Surface sanitizer and Microbarrier Elite, an antimicrobial coating that can be left on food processing equipment, to build a scientifically validated program, Lucas adds.

Keep a distance

One major change that the pandemic has brought for sanitation workers is the mask requirement, Pan says. “Masks can cause goggles or face shields to fog up even more than usual, which can make the job more difficult.”

Social distancing requirements can also be challenging. “As you can probably imagine, it’s incredibly difficult to keep a good, effective social distance in the food industry,” Sims contends. “Workstations are inherently close to each other on a meat processing line.”

The same can be true in the sanitation process as workers move parts and pieces around to be sanitized, Sims notes. “It’s a big industry, and there are a lot of people on the sanitation crew when things are fully staffed,” he says. “Now the industry is trying to make sure that’s not all concentrated in one room; now we’re spreading the workforce around.”

Madison Chemical has started to provide guidance to its customers, helping them to interpret what the CDC and FDA are recommending. “We’re looking at how to take what regulatory bodies are saying is best practice and making that work for our customers,” Sims says. “While the guidance can be very broad-reaching, our goal is to make it work for each of our customers throughout the food industry.”

Automate for safety

Sani-Matic, which was already in the business of automating the sanitation process, has seen that automation makes even more sense in terms of the pandemic. What’s key is that automation typically reduces the number of people needed to perform a particular sanitation duty, says Bryan Downer, vice president of sales and marketing at Sani-Matic. This enables workers to keep more of a distance from each other.

He points to several customers who have told Sani-Matic that they used to run one shift but are now having to run two in order to better separate their employees. “Now they have to clean faster, and they have less time to do the cleaning process,” Downer says. “There are fewer people on each shift, so they do it with fewer people.”

Typically, there are too many people in close proximity to one another during the cleaning process. “We can reduce the number of people in any given area,” Downer says. “We’re improving worker safety through automation.”

Even clean in place (CIP), which already enables a reduction in personnel, can see a wide range of effects depending on the level of automation employed, Downer notes. “Those who have opted for fully automated certainly are reaping the benefits. The automation allows a touch-free type of situation. You can go from production to CIP very quickly with very little human interaction,” he says. “On the other end of the scale, you have a lot of people moving hoses, jumpers, filling water and tanks. There’s a wide difference in how people handle clean in place.”

While automation can help create a safe environment for sanitation workers in the plant, administrative staff might not need to be in the plant at all. Sani-Matic has developed a software package that integrates with its equipment so that remote workers can see everything that’s going on with the machine from wherever they are. To read about this and other remote access technologies being used in sanitation, see “Remote Access Technologies Help Keep Sanitation Workers Safe.”

Training difficulties

Training today’s workforce was already a particular concern before the pandemic, according to several sources, who cite some of the pain points felt across industry related to retiring workforces and the lack of skilled workers. But this is perhaps even more pronounced in food and beverage, where it has been particularly difficult to retain workers.

“Staffing and keeping up with training has been a big concern,” Sims says, noting the amount of turnover that’s been typical in the food industry. “We’re making it as fool-proof as possible and handing them the training tools they need in a user-friendly format.”

In addition to the cleaning procedures Madison Chemical typically provides its customers for food processing equipment, the supplier has also started providing standard procedures for how to clean offices as well. Today, some manufacturers are adding the cleaning of common areas to the responsibilities of their sanitation staff. “We’ve seen a lot of customers have to move resources and people around to keep up with areas,” Sims says. “Everybody is trying to train on the proper way to keep the spread [of COVID-19] down.”

Where social distancing has had a particular impact is in training efforts. “Facilities must get creative on how they deliver trainings to people, including recording trainings that people can listen to in small settings, or from their own device, or staggering out the training schedule to only have a limited number in the training room, allowing social distancing,” Faucetta says. “At CFS, we have seen an increased demand from our customers with these new challenges to deliver training. COVID has raised new challenges in building and maintaining a passion for food safety in food manufacturing organizations.”

In response, CFS has developed a series of digital short courses on sanitation and hygienic design topics that it has made freely available to the industry from its website.

Training has certainly become more virtual, Downer agrees. “That used to occur almost exclusively with them coming to our site during FAT [factory acceptance testing] or us going to their site,” he says. “Now we need to handle this virtually.”

Sani-Matic’s SaniTrend Cloud enables access to video training in addition to data acquisition. “We’ll continue to build that library,” Downer says.

Beyond the pandemic

Few people believe that the changes made in cleaning and sanitation during COVID-19 are likely to ever go back to the way they were before the pandemic. “I would be surprised to see us return to a world where we aren’t as cognitive as we are now about the spread of viruses,” Sims says. 

“We will continue to see facilities focus on employee health and self-monitoring,” Pan agrees. “We hope that increased disinfection of high-touch surfaces is a practice that continues. We are looking forward to more developments and research in air treatment technologies as this can help employee health, product safety, and quality.”

On that last point, Faucetta emphasizes the importance that zoning plays in the safety of both the product and the workers. “It’s well known that hygienic zoning/separation is critical to protect product from microbial cross-contamination,” she says. “We have seen how hygienic zoning/separation also plays a positive role in preventing infection during the pandemic, which will continue shifting the food manufacturing plant design and drive the industry forward.”

Though plants are likely to normalize once vaccines and treatments are more readily available, Downer believes that attention to restricting non-essential personnel will remain. “There’s a trend of them not wanting to travel for the FAT, for customers wanting to see service technicians do things virtually,” he says. “We’ll see that catch on, though more slowly.”

It doesn’t make sense to fly halfway across the country when a person already there could be wearing an augmented reality (AR) device while a service technician walks them through everything they need to do, Downer adds. “All the technology’s available. We’ll continue to see growth from that standpoint.” To learn more about the tools needed for virtual FATs, see pages 16-18 in this issue.

The move toward availability of data outside the facility’s internal network will also make sense in the long term, Downer says. “There is so much that can be gained by people having real-time access to information. They can access that data, allow third parties to access that data and troubleshoot,” he adds. “Once customers see the value, they’re going to want more and more of that. It’ll make their lives a lot easier.”


Related article: Remote Access Technologies Help Keep Sanitation Workers Safe



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