Managing the risk of coronavirus (COVID-19) exposure: Meat and poultry processing

Preventing and controlling employee exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19) in the meat and poultry processing industries.

Last updated

Thursday 21 May 2020

Industries and topics
  • Manufacturing
  • Infectious diseases

Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the meat and poultry processing industry

A coronavirus (COVID-19) infection can cause mild to severe respiratory illness. The most common coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms reported are:

  • fever
    • chills or sweats
      • cough
        • sore throat
          • shortness of breath
            • runny nose
              • loss of sense of smell
                • fatigue or tiredness

                  Coronavirus (COVID-19) is most likely to spread from person to person through:

                  • close contact with an infected person
                    • touching objects or surfaces (such as door handles and hand rails) contaminated by a person with the infection

                      Employees in the meat and poultry processing industry are not exposed to coronavirus (COVID-19) through the meat products they handle, however there is the potential for an increased risk of exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19) due to tasks that normally require close interaction between employees such as processing lines and the rapid nature of the work.

                      Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) employers have a duty to provide and maintain, so far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of employees. This includes preventing risks to health (including psychological health) and safety associated with potential exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19).

                      Employees have a duty to take reasonable care of their own and others health and safety in the workplace, and cooperate with their employers about any action they take to comply with the OHS Act or Regulations.

                      Identifying risks

                      Employers must identify hazards and assess the level of risk to the health of employees from exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19) at their workplace. This must be done in consultation with health and safety representatives (HSRs), if any, and employees, so far as is reasonably practicable.

                      Each group of employees in the workplace should be considered, from delivery of raw product to final product. This may include such areas as kill floor, plucking, boning, manufacturing, packaging, storage, warehouse, forklift movement, cleaning, maintenance, and cafeteria staff.

                      Some of the main factors that could contribute to meat and poultry employees contracting coronavirus (COVID-19) are:

                      1. Distance between employees

                        Employees often work close to one another on processing lines. Employees may also be near one another at other locations, such as entrances/exits to the facility, clocking in/out points, break rooms, wash rooms, boot rooms, locker/changing rooms, showers and toilets, and washing rooms prior to entry into kill floors or processing rooms.

                      2. Duration of close interaction

                        Employees may often have prolonged close interaction with each other. Continued close interaction with potentially infectious individuals increases the risk of coronavirus (COVID-19) transmission.

                      3. Type of close interaction

                        Employees may be exposed to the infectious virus through respiratory droplets in the air, for example when employees in the plant who have the virus cough or sneeze. It is also possible that exposure could occur from contact with contaminated surfaces or objects, such as tools, workstations, or break room tables.

                      4. Other distinctive factors that may increase risk among meat and poultry employees include:
                        • a common practice at some workplaces of sharing transportation such as ride-share vans or shuttle vehicles, car-pools, and public transportation
                        • frequent contact with fellow workers in community settings in areas where there is ongoing community transmission.

                      Controlling the risks of exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19)

                      Face coverings in workplaces

                      Directions from the Chief Health Officer about face coverings may be in place in your area. For more information see the guidance Managing coronavirus (COVID-19) risks: Face coverings in workplaces.

                      Where a risk to health is identified at a workplace, employers must, so far as is reasonably practicable, eliminate the risk. Where it is not possible to eliminate the risk, it must be reduced, so far as is reasonably practicable.

                      Employers also have a duty to consult with employees and HSRs (if any), so far as is reasonably practicable, on matters related to health or safety that directly affect, or are likely to directly affect them. This includes consultation on decisions about how to control risks associated with coronavirus (COVID-19).

                      Every workplace will need to develop a unique plan to minimise the risk by introducing different control measures. The types of control measures required depends on the level of risk as well as the availability and suitability of controls for each workplace, including individual work areas.

                      Screening and quarantining

                      To minimise the risk of exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19), employers should consider implementing a process to screen workers before entry into the workplace to start their shift. The process could include:

                      • asking employees if they have traveled or been in contact with any confirmed cases of coronavirus (COVID-19), or have had any of the common symptoms in the past 48 hours (see list above)
                        • conducting temperature checks with touch-free thermometers. It should be noted that such tests will not tell whether a person has coronavirus (COVID-19). A person may have a temperature for other reasons or be on medication that reduces their temperature or may be asymptomatic. If used, temperature checks should only be used as a guide along with other tools to assist in making decisions. 

                          Equipment for conducting temperature checks needs to be clean and reliable, and protocols should be in place in the event of elevated temperatures.

                          Policies and procedures for screening employees should be developed in consultation with employees, HSRs and occupational medical professionals.

                          If an employee is at work and develops symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19), the employer should provide a mask where possible, and the employee should return home immediately, call the coronavirus (COVID-19) information line on 1800 675 398, and follow the self-isolation guidance available on the DHHS website.

                          An employer's duty to eliminate or reduce risks associated with exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19), so far as is reasonably practicable, includes ensuring that:

                          • employees know what to do or who to notify if they feel unwell or suspect they've been infected, according to the information provided by DHHS 
                            • any unwell employee does not attend the workplace, including employees who have been tested for coronavirus (COVID-19) or who are confirmed coronavirus (COVID-19) cases

                              Notifiable incidents and coronavirus (COVID-19)

                              From 28 July 2020 new temporary regulations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 specify when employers and self-employed persons must notify WorkSafe of a confirmed diagnosis of coronavirus (COVID-19) in the workplace. For more information see the guidance Notifiable incidents involving coronavirus (COVID-19).

                              DHHS information

                              Physical distancing

                              One of the ways coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads is by people coughing or sneezing, causing droplets to transmit from one person to another. That is why one of the best ways to protect others is to practise physical distancing.

                              Physical distancing means maintaining a distance of at least 1.5m between people wherever possible. Every attempt needs to be made to ensure at least a 1.5m distance between employees is achieved and maintained. If this is not possible in an enclosed space, then there should be on average no more than 1 person per 4 square metres of floor space.

                              Physical distancing should be practised and encouraged in meat and poultry processing workplaces. This includes the factory floor, entry and exit points, amenities (toilets and change rooms), dining and smoking areas, and at meetings.

                              Ways that employers and employees can encourage physical distancing include:

                              • Configure communal work areas so that employees are spaced at least 1.5m apart, if possible. Changes in production practices may be necessary in order to maintain appropriate distances between employees.
                                • Use floor markings to provide minimum physical distancing guides between workstations.
                                  • Modify the alignment of workstations so that employees do not face one another.
                                    • Where 1.5m distancing between employees is not possible, install screens or plastic strip curtains where practicable to minimise the risk of droplet transmission from one employee to another. Screens need to be high enough to prevent potential droplets from coughing or sneezing directly reaching other employees.
                                      • Ensure each employee has their own equipment/tools.
                                        • Where allocated smoke areas exist, ensure smokers are at least 1.5m apart. This could be achieved by creating markings on the ground and, if necessary, extending the allocated smoking area.
                                          • Minimise the build-up of employees waiting to enter and exit the workplace and various parts of the workplace by:
                                            • allocating different doors for entry and exit throughout the workplace where possible
                                            • using an entry and exit system to the site that is as contactless as possible and quick to enter and exit
                                            • using floor markings to provide minimum physical distancing guides at entrances and exits
                                          • If fans such as pedestal fans or hard mounted fans are used in the workplace, minimise air from fans blowing from one employee directly at another.
                                            • Arrange separate lunchrooms for work teams if possible.
                                              • Identify additional or alternative break and lunch areas for employees such as training and conference rooms, or portables.
                                                • Provide each employee with a permanent chair in the lunchroom. Where this is not practicable, the employer must ensure appropriate cleaning and disinfecting occurs between lunchroom access by different groups.
                                                  • Install barriers on tables and between chairs in lunchrooms.
                                                    • Limit each table to 2 people, at each end, unless greater distancing can be achieved (remove excess seats), otherwise add partitions to tables.
                                                      • Stagger arrival, departure and break times where practicable to avoid congestion.
                                                        • Consider increasing the time separation between shifts.
                                                          • Increase amenities on site (including portable toilets and wash areas) if required to maintain 1.5m distances.
                                                            • Isolate sections of bench seating to ensure 1.5m distancing.
                                                              • Increase the number of hand washing facilities.
                                                                • Increase the number of areas for changing, or allow more time for changing, and consider staggering change times where practicable.
                                                                  • Slow down production in order to create additional time to reduce congestion in boot wash and change and locker rooms.
                                                                    • Change taps on site to knee or foot-operated, create partitions between taps and between hoses, and use exhaust fans to reduce the high humidity.
                                                                      • Create single file pathways with markings every 1.5m.
                                                                        • Ensure supervisors or designated persons monitor, encourage and facilitate distancing, particularly on processing floors, and hand washing and sanitising.
                                                                          • Encourage employees to avoid car-pooling if possible.
                                                                            • If one shift is normally operated, consider splitting employees over two shifts if practicable.
                                                                              • Consider providing additional leave where leave is necessary due to COVID-19. This may reduce the risk of employees attending work when unwell due to financial needs.
                                                                                • Consider grouping of work teams into sub-teams, to reduce the number of different people each employee works directly next to. This may minimise the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) if present in the workplace, minimise the number of employees that need to quarantine if quarantine should be required, and increase the effectiveness of any changed systems of work (such as split shifts).
                                                                                  • Record staff positions each day for trace back purposes.
                                                                                    • Establish regular communication to reinforce the need to maintain physical distancing and other control measures. Any non-essential face-to-face meetings or training should be postponed or cancelled.
                                                                                      • Consider consulting with a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning engineer to ensure adequate ventilation in work areas to help minimise employees’ potential exposures.
                                                                                        • Dilution ventilation might also be used in other employee-concentrated areas such as boot and wash areas to dilute those environments and further reduce any potential risk.

                                                                                          If physical distancing measures introduce new health and safety risks, employers must manage those risks too.

                                                                                          The DHHS and the Australian Government Department of Health have posters and other resources aimed at educating the public about coronavirus (COVID-19). These can be placed in client-facing work environments (for example in workplace entrances).

                                                                                          Physical distancing practice examples

                                                                                          Bad

                                                                                          Employees are within 1.5 metres of one another, side by side or facing workstations.

                                                                                          Employees are within 1.5 metres of one another, side by side or facing workstations.

                                                                                          Good

                                                                                          Physical barriers such as partitions, separate employees from each other.

                                                                                          Partitions may need to be adjusted to integrate with the processing line or other manufacturing equipment.

                                                                                          Employees are spaced at least 1.5 metres apart, not facing one another.  Other configurations may be used to achieve similar distancing between employees.

                                                                                          Good

                                                                                          Employees are spaced at least 1.5 metres apart, not facing one another.

                                                                                          Other configurations may be used to achieve similar distancing between employees.

                                                                                          Physical barriers such as partitions, separate employees from each other.  Partitions may need to be adjusted to integrate with the processing line or other manufacturing equipment.

                                                                                          Good

                                                                                          Physical barriers such as partitions, separate employees from each other.

                                                                                          Partitions may need to be adjusted to integrate with the processing line or other manufacturing equipment, including where employees need to perform tasks in tandem across with each other.

                                                                                          For tasks performed in tandem, with employees across from one another, partitions can be positioned to protect employees while allowing the pass-through of materials.

                                                                                          Source: These images have been adapted from the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), Meat and Poultry Packing Industry: Interim Guidance from CDC and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA).

                                                                                          Hygiene

                                                                                          Environmental cleaning

                                                                                          The amount of time the coronavirus (COVID-19) survives on inanimate objects and surfaces varies. Environmental cleaning is one way to remove the virus.

                                                                                          Follow the DHHS advice about cleaning - see the document 'Cleaning and disinfecting to reduce COVID-19 transmission' on the DHHS Business and industry coronavirus disease (COVID-19) page.

                                                                                          Usual cleaning regimes should be increased, including at the end of each shift. In addition:

                                                                                          • Ensure frequently touched surfaces are cleaned and disinfected regularly with appropriate detergent or disinfectant solutions.
                                                                                            • Frequently cleanse and disinfect personal items used in the workplace such as glasses and phones.
                                                                                              • Clean boot and wash rooms (including hoses) after each major break.
                                                                                                • Workplace amenities including kitchens, lunchrooms, common areas, change rooms, toilets, showers, drink fountains and vending machines should be cleaned and disinfected, and the frequency of this cleaning should increase.

                                                                                                  Additional cleaning and hygiene controls that may be required include:

                                                                                                  • Ensure that surfaces are cleaned if an employee spreads droplets (such as sneezing, coughing or vomiting).
                                                                                                    • Ensure people who are conducting cleaning wear gloves and follow manufacturer’s recommendations for use of PPE. For example, employees may need protective eye wear when using some chemicals. Where possible, wash hands with soap and water after cleaning or, if washing is not possible, use alcohol-based hand sanitiser.
                                                                                                      • Make alcohol-based hand sanitiser available throughout the workplace.
                                                                                                        • Provide closed bins in appropriate locations for employees to hygienically dispose of waste such as used tissues as soon as possible after use.
                                                                                                          • Provide alcohol-based hand sanitiser for employees to use after they dispose of their waste.
                                                                                                            • Where employees’ work clothes are washed on site, appropriate procedures should be in place and reviewed to ensure effectiveness.
                                                                                                              • Consider increasing the use of fresh (outside) air and reducing the use of recirculated air-conditioning in common areas.

                                                                                                                For more information about cleaning, see the documents on 'Cleaning and disinfecting to reduce COVID-19 transmission' on the DHHS Business and industry coronavirus disease (COVID-19) page.

                                                                                                                Employee hygiene

                                                                                                                Ensure all employees practise good hygiene, including by:

                                                                                                                • washing hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, including before and after eating and going to the toilet
                                                                                                                  • covering coughs and sneezes with an elbow or a tissue
                                                                                                                    • avoiding touching the eyes, nose and mouth
                                                                                                                      • immediately disposing of tissues into a waste bin then washing hands
                                                                                                                        • using alcohol-based hand sanitisers
                                                                                                                          • cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and shared equipment after use
                                                                                                                            • limiting contact with others, including shaking hands

                                                                                                                              Employers should ensure that washroom facilities for employees have adequate facilities for good hygiene including clean running water, and an adequate supply of soap, water, single-use paper hand towels or hand drying machines, and toilet paper. These must be kept clean, properly stocked and in good working order.

                                                                                                                              Employers should also provide alcohol-based hand sanitizers containing at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not immediately available. Hand sanitizer should be placed in multiple locations to encourage hand hygiene. If possible, choose hand sanitizer stations that are touch-free.

                                                                                                                              Employers should also consider other ways to promote personal hygiene, such as:

                                                                                                                              • building additional short breaks into staff schedules to increase the frequency that staff can wash their hands
                                                                                                                                • extending currently rostered breaks to allow employees to follow proper hygiene procedures
                                                                                                                                  • providing tissues and no-touch trash receptacles (eg foot pedal-operated) for employees to use
                                                                                                                                    • educating workers that cigarettes and smokeless tobacco use can lead to increased contact between potentially contaminated hands and mouths, and that avoiding these products may reduce the risk of infection
                                                                                                                                      • educating workers not to share items such as drink bottles or cigarettes
                                                                                                                                        • reducing the number of touch points for employees, for example by leaving access doors open where appropriate

                                                                                                                                          Workers should be educated to avoid touching their faces, including their eyes, noses, and mouths, particularly until after they have thoroughly washed their hands upon completing work and/or after removing personal protective equipment (PPE).

                                                                                                                                          Personal protective equipment (PPE)

                                                                                                                                          PPE is a protection of last resort.

                                                                                                                                          In some cases, due to the risk of droplet exposure remaining after the controls above (including physical distancing and the use of barriers) have been considered and implemented or are impractical, appropriate masks or face shields would need to be provided. For example, some work areas (eg. kill/slaughter floor areas) in old or poorly designed workplaces may, in the short term, not enable physical distancing and appropriate barriers to prevent splash/droplet transmission (such as from coughing and sneezing).  

                                                                                                                                          Appropriate masks include respirators (that meet the Australian/New Zealand Standard on Respiratory protective devices (AS/NZS 1716:2012) or its equivalent) and surgical masks, noting that surgical masks would be adequate and that respirators should be primarily reserved for specialist healthcare procedures.

                                                                                                                                          Where PPE (such as masks or face shields) is being relied on as a control measure:

                                                                                                                                          • employers must ensure that adequate PPE is available on site and within easy access
                                                                                                                                            • training on the use and maintenance of the PPE needs to be provided, along with supervision to ensure it is appropriately used
                                                                                                                                              • disposable masks should be disposed of after a break
                                                                                                                                                • non-disposable masks need to be appropriately cleaned and stored when going on a break
                                                                                                                                                  • face shields or protective eyewear that is reusable must be appropriately cleaned and disinfected after each use

                                                                                                                                                    Deliveries, contractors and visitors attending the workplace

                                                                                                                                                    • Non-essential visits to the workplace should be cancelled or postponed.
                                                                                                                                                      • Minimise the number of employees attending to deliveries and contractors as much as possible.
                                                                                                                                                        • Delivery drivers and other contractors who need to attend the workplace, to provide maintenance or repair services or perform other essential activities, should be given clear instructions of requirements while they are on site.
                                                                                                                                                          • Ensure handwashing facilities, or if not possible, alcohol-based hand sanitiser, is readily available for employees after physically handling deliveries.
                                                                                                                                                            • Direct visiting delivery drivers and contractors to remain in vehicles and use contactless methods such as mobile phones to communicate with employees wherever possible.
                                                                                                                                                              • Direct visiting delivery drivers and contractors to use alcohol-based hand sanitiser before handling products being delivered.
                                                                                                                                                                • Use, and ask delivery drivers and contractors to use, electronic paperwork where possible, to minimise physical interaction. Where possible, set up alternatives to requiring signatures. For instance, see whether a confirmation email or a photo of the loaded or unloaded goods can be accepted as proof of delivery or collection (as applicable).

                                                                                                                                                                  Communication and employee welfare

                                                                                                                                                                  Employers must consult with employees and HSRs (if any), on matters related to health or safety that directly affect, or are likely to directly affect them, so far as is reasonably practicable. Employers should also:

                                                                                                                                                                  • provide updated information to all employees in a format that they can readily understand (eg in their own language), and in multiple formats (eg email, posters, verbal), including employees on leave, contractors and casual workers
                                                                                                                                                                    • ensure there are contingency plans in place for staff replacement when necessary

                                                                                                                                                                      Legal duties

                                                                                                                                                                      Employers have duties under the OHS Act, which include that they must, so far as is reasonably practicable:

                                                                                                                                                                      • provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of employees and independent contractors
                                                                                                                                                                        • provide adequate facilities for the welfare of employees and independent contractors
                                                                                                                                                                          • provide such information, instruction, training or supervision to employees and independent contractors as is necessary to enable those persons to perform their work in a way that is safe and without risks to health
                                                                                                                                                                            • monitor the health of employees of the employer
                                                                                                                                                                              • monitor conditions at any workplace under the employer's management and control
                                                                                                                                                                                • provide information concerning health and safety to employees, including (where appropriate) in languages other than English
                                                                                                                                                                                  • ensure that persons other than employees of the employer are not exposed to risks to their health or safety arising from the conduct of the undertaking of the employer
                                                                                                                                                                                    • consult with employees and HSRs, if any, on matters related to health or safety that directly affect them, or are likely to directly affect them

                                                                                                                                                                                      A person with management or control of a workplace must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the workplace and the means of entering and leaving it are safe and without risks to health.

                                                                                                                                                                                      Employees also have duties under the OHS Act, which includes that they must:

                                                                                                                                                                                      • take reasonable care for their own health and safety
                                                                                                                                                                                        • take reasonable care for the health and safety of persons who may be affected by the employee's acts or omissions at a workplace
                                                                                                                                                                                          • cooperate with their employer with respect to any action taken by the employer to comply with a requirement imposed by or under the OHS Act

                                                                                                                                                                                            References

                                                                                                                                                                                            United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), Meat and Poultry Packing Industry: Interim Guidance from CDC and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA).