PSSI has been working with its customers to help develop sanitation programs to assist them during the coronavirus crisis.

For meat packers, the landscape is shifting daily, as plants adjust processes to the risks of the coronavirus (COVID-19). Collaboration between meat plants and suppliers has enabled them to respond rapidly to meet the needs of protecting employees.

While some large plants have shut down for as long as two weeks to make physical and process changes, others have done it over a long weekend. Still others have enacted mini-engineering miracles literally overnight. Across this range, several key approaches have emerged toward mitigating the spread of the virus in the workplace.

1) Social distancing: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that social distancing be achieved by separation of at least 6 feet, or by physical barriers, as in the use of face masks. Creating distance is a problem in many plants, so physical barriers have become an important means of separation. One further-processing plant reports: “We have been able to spread out a number of jobs, but in other areas we have had to install partitions.”

A general manager at a large US-based beef facility recently said that while they spread workers out where they could, that was not achievable in certain parts of the plant. Instead, their approach was to provide three degrees of physical barrier: “We put partitions up in production areas and lunchrooms. Everyone now wears a mask and a face shield.”

2) Screening employees prior to work: Many plants are screening people as they come to work, via questionnaire or by thermal scan with a sensor which can detect fever in individuals. Keeping sick employees from infecting others is another means of separation.

3) Strategic scheduling: Plants are adjusting schedules by managing how and when employees arrive at work; enter the plant; report to their workstations; take breaks; and attend meetings. Such tactical scheduling is another element of controlling physical separation for employees in movement at plant entries, in welfare areas, cafeterias and in locker rooms.

4) Increased use of decontaminating chemicals: Facilities are increasing the concentration of sanitizing chemicals when safely possible, including the use of virus killing disinfectants in welfare areas. Companies such as Henderson, Colo.-based Birko Corp. and Fusion Tech Integrated Inc., Roseville, Ill., have started manufacturing fogging/misting equipment and supplies. Contract sanitation companies like Packer’s Sanitation Inc. (PSSI), Kieler, Wis., are helping plants with deep cleaning and plant decontamination programs that specifically target the COVID-19 virus.

Killing step

When a business’ sole focus is sanitizing food plants, keeping facilities clean is a daily job that requires a rigorous process to produce a food-safe environment. PSSI has adapted its process on the fly to address client concerns about employee health and COVID-19.

“Sanitation is the core of our business model, so we were largely prepared to confront the challenges of COVID-19,” said Dan Taft, chief executive officer of PSSI. “As COVID-19 spread quickly across the country, we worked closely with customers to provide critical sanitation services to clean and decontaminate facilities in case of exposure and provide a new decontamination process to all 500 facilities we clean in North America.”

Taft cited an example of a customer with an employee that tested positive for the virus and who had worked in several areas of the plant.

“Some of the new steps we have taken to protect our employees include measures to ensure adherence to the practices of social distancing.” — Dan Taft

“Our operations team quickly partnered with the company to formulate a decontamination plan,” he said. “PSSI developed a strategy that included fogging with Purer Hard Surface, a patented misting solution listed on the US Environmental Protection Agency’s List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2. We decontaminated the facility in 17 hours and limited downtime.”

PSSI has also changed the way their own employees work.

“Some of the new steps we have taken to protect our employees include measures to ensure adherence to the practices of social distancing,” Taft added. “We are staggering start times, breaks, and meal periods. We also provide additional PPE for our team members and implemented pre-shift temperature screening as a strategy to maintain a safe workplace.”

Uncharted territory

Birko switched to bulk production of hand sanitizer after there were shortages when the coronavirus pandemic began.

Birko, a chemical, equipment and technology company, recognized the challenge from the start.

“There was no playbook”, said Kelly Green, president of Birko and the third-generation leader of her family’s business. As the coronavirus epic unfolded, Birko concentrated on nimble responses to customer needs.

One change addressed the need for hand sanitizer products. Previously a distributor of the product, Birko quickly shifted to manufacturing it.

“When everything started breaking, you couldn’t find hand sanitizer,” said Mark Swanson, CEO of Birko. “We knew that if we had a lead time that would be measured in months, it wouldn’t be sufficient. So, we pivoted fast and started making our own FDA-approved hand sanitizer, blending it here and shipping truckload quantities.”

In another key response area, Green said Birko benefited by looking to its in-house experts.

“We utilized our engineering team to figure out what kind of equipment can be used to dispense these products in welfare areas or other self-contained areas,” she said.

Swanson added, “The Kansas City team developed a self-contained, portable misting unit that can dispense ready to use chemicals to welfare areas, all within about two or three weeks to get them built and out to our customers.”

Green summarized, “My grandparents started this business out of their garage in 1953. The fabric of what they built this company on was listening to their customers and coming up with solutions to solve their problems. We continue to listen, and we continue to come up with solutions, providing our customers with products to keep them safe, healthy, and protect the food chain.”

Building on barriers

The rapid design-to-installation of plexiglass shields in meat plants is a good example of how companies like Fusion Tech have responded quickly to the new world of the COVID-19 virus.

Fusion Tech has begun manufacture of a new portable fogging cart to allow decontaminating chemicals to mist large spaces.Brandon Bentz, vice president of Fusion Tech, described the path of product concept-to-delivery in less than a week.

“We talked about it on a Monday morning. In four hours, we built a prototype. Within 24 hours we went from the idea to putting a one-page brochure together to send to customers,” he said.

Orders came in the same day.

“By that weekend we were delivering to plants for installation,” Bentz said.

That led to other innovations.

“From that concept, the requests have evolved into the design and fabrication of lunch table dividers, hinged guarding for egress, sanitizer stands and holders. We thrive on being flexible,” he said.

Addressing another need, Fusion Tech has begun manufacture of a new portable fogging cart to allow decontaminating chemicals to mist large spaces.

“Our innovation center is about 70-feet long, 40-feet wide with 16-foot ceilings and we can completely fog that room in about 3 minutes. You can roll the unit into any room, hook up air, and fog the room. The applications are endless, from carcass coolers to office spaces to production areas,” he explained.

“The virus has changed the way that we, as a society, look at sanitation and employee safety, and we here at Fusion Tech want to continue to develop systems and products to help keep everyone safe going forward,” Bentz said. “We have a great team that can think outside the box, develop new ideas and respond quickly to an ever-changing market landscape.”