As COVID-19 continues to disrupt daily life, food plants must continue working to figure out a way to keep producing safely. COVID-19 poses the biggest threat to workers whose jobs require close contact, creating new challenges that the food industry is being forced to address, particularly regarding how a facility is designed and built. This includes a greater focus on sanitary design principals earlier in the design process.
Zones of Control
Design should include separating production areas that have raw and/or ready-to-eat products. This includes separate areas for employees to handle either type of product, including locker rooms and cafeterias.
“Separation is the key defense against spreading COVID-19, but additional separation beyond what is already required for food safety will be a tough hurdle,” says Luke Waite, regional manager, ESI Group USA. “Additional separation must keep employees safe and still allow them to do their jobs.”
This could impact operating procedures, resulting in more walls, doors, automated processes, interlocked spaces, and employee temperature screenings. Waite says: “Creating distance between workers and changing the duration and type of contact they have with one another must be considered whether renovating or designing a food facility.”
Temperature and Moisture Control
Early in the design process, the function of every room should be defined to determine room temperatures. After temperatures are identified, specifying the proper mechanical systems in the facility will be critical to eliminating food safety issues.
“Generally, COVID-19 can survive for shorter periods at high temperatures and higher humidity than in cooler or dryer environments,” says Waite. “While there is not enough data to show if or what the temperature cutoff for inactivation is, this is something that could result in modified operating processes. As more information is available, how temperatures impact COVID-19 makes selecting and designing proper mechanical systems more critical.”
The design process should clearly define how to clean a building and equipment. Yet, adopting a cleaning program specifically designed for COVID-19 may be difficult because information changes frequently. The biggest change we see is creating more space between workers. Waite says cleanability comes down to implementing proper construction materials, wash-down processes, and equipment selection.
Identify construction materials based on their potential durability during wash-down processes. Waite says construction materials already used to design and build a facility have proven they can withstand harsh chemicals, heat, and thorough sanitation processes. These materials include stainless steel for wall panels, doors, equipment, floor drains, FRP, and epoxy resin flooring.
He adds that most maintenance programs at food facilities already involve thorough wash-down but could be expanded to require cleaning processes throughout the day. Another cleaning option is ultraviolet (UV) disinfection. “There is limited data showing heat is effective against the COVID-19 virus, so, if more data proves this to be a sound method, there could be more UV disinfecting in the future,” says Waite. “Given the enormous disruption COVID-19 has caused and the possibility of other virus interruptions, UV disinfecting could make the most impact being incorporated more with mechanical systems, if proven to be effective.”
Data from lab studies indicate that it may be possible for a person to get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or their eyes, although this isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But studies do show that COVID-19 can live for several days on certain surfaces, so the use of touch-less equipment may become more common. Touch-less technology could be incorporated to enter a room, on break room machines, time clocks, and process floor equipment. “Any chance to eliminate workers’ interaction with surfaces that may harbor the COVID-19 virus should be evaluated,” says Waite.
Going forward, the CDC has issued new safety guidance for meat and poultry processing plants, recommending physical distancing, plexiglass barriers, and improved ventilation systems. “This pandemic will push us all to think outside the box to maintain and improve sanitation and operating procedures,” says Waite. “This will likely not be the last time a virus creates an uproar in the food chain.”
- At least 503 meatpacking and food processing plants (370 meatpacking and 133 food processing) have had confirmed cases of Covid-19.
- At least 39,866 workers (35,597 meatpacking workers, 4,269 food processing workers) have tested positive for Covid-19.
- 58 food processing plants have closed as of June 26.
“Once again the ESI team amazed me with timely design and construction management. Although the schedule was very aggressive the ESI team performed all tasks on time.”
– Michael Wammack, Land O’Frost
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