Food processing factories could become “super spreaders” of Covid-19 in the run up to Christmas, the union body the TUC has warned.
People working in food plants already faced a higher chance of contracting Covid-19 because of the lack of airflow, lack of social distancing and low temperatures, the TUC said. But, with the number of temporary workers in food manufacturing set to increase by more than 40% this Christmas, it warned that workplace infections could also grow sharply.
Since March, several UK food factories have been forced to close during the pandemic after reporting hundreds of cases of coronavirus, among them suppliers to major supermarkets. In October, turkey meat manufacturer Bernard Matthews reported 147 positive cases across two sites.
Food processing has also had the third highest rate of outbreaks of any sector across Europe, after care homes and hospitals, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
The TUC urged ministers to update workplace health and safety guidance in the run-up to Christmas to deal with a range of issues, including:
- Ventilation. The TUC argued current guidance failed to offer advice on effective ventilation beyond opening windows. It didn’t state, for example, what additional measures should be implemented in instances where this is not possible to achieve.
- Face coverings. The TUC urged the government to issue detailed standards on the quality of face coverings, highlighting that the World Health Organization recommends that there should be three protective layers.
- Workplace temperature. The TUC said studies had shown coronavirus thrives in the cooler temperatures, such as those found in meat-packing factories. But there was no mention of workplace temperatures in the current official guidance.
- Social distancing. The TUC said current guidance stated that, where two-metre distancing was not possible, working side by side was preferable to face to face. But it argued this rule needed to be reviewed based on the most recent scientific findings.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “There is a real danger that food factories could become ‘super spreaders’ of Covid-19 as they produce turkeys and other seasonal fare for Christmas.
“Out-of-date guidelines on food production, combined with the seasonal increase in staff, will put factory workers at an even higher risk of infection. 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,” she added.