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The risk of factory footpaths

Traffic. I lived for 15 years in a Chicago suburb, where traffic to anywhere was a normal part of life. I didn’t hate the line of cars at a stop light or the stop-and-go on the interstate at rush hour. The opening scene of the musical LaLaLand starts with a visually beautiful number on the stalled LA freeway, a normal part of life there. The last episode of Homeland that I watched showed Saul waiting to enter the West Bank in a sea of cars. Traffic is a part of life. We are directed when and where to go.

In a visit to a food factory, I stood at the nexus and observed the traffic where every employee and every forklift traveled. I could see the employee entrance and the stairs to the employee break room. The forklift moved product from packaging to the dock. The stairs to the lab. The path to the maintenance room. The hall to the front offices. It was all there-so much traffic. A production worker walked through processing, through packaging to the raw side and back. The forklift went everywhere, including outside.

It was an old building that had been added to over and over again. Yet, in that one spot I could see so much. What I could not see was the transfer of pathogen contamination, and I was there to do thousands of dollars in testing to find the contamination. There was no concern of allergen cross-contact, but there was the concern of pathogen cross-contamination. The pathogen had gotten in somewhere, and the test results would show it was all over.

Foot traffic. Yes, there were footbaths. Could the production worker call a different worker on the raw side and eliminate that trip? When the employees enter from outside, there must be an area to shed the outer world and don clean coverings after hand-washing. That is not negotiable. Any time an employee uses the restroom, goes on break, goes to the lab, or goes to the office, they must not carry a pathogen out or in. Are there maintained footbaths, foot sprays, or air curtains to keep pathogens out of areas where product is exposed? Where is the transition area for each path? Are the employees trained to understand not only the how and when, but the why? Does your smoking policy send workers outside to their vehicles multiple times a day to track dirt back in the building?

What to do? Work needed to be done, and product needed to be moved. It’s all about transition areas. Could one forklift move the product on pallets to the dock area and another forklift pick up the pallet from the other side and load? Yes, forklifts dedicated to a task or an area do exist. You say you can’t afford dedicated forklifts for different areas? Can you afford a recall? I just read the average recall has a direct cost of $10 million. That’s a lot of forklifts.

The FDA will be judging your company for evidence of a food safety culture. How you manage your employee and forklift traffic becomes that evidence. A stop-and-go light is a sign directing the flow of traffic. Signs make our lives safer, and signs are evidence of a food safety culture. Set up transition areas and dedicated hand wash stations with clear access and signage. Create a food safety culture where every employee holds every other employee accountable to transition area procedures.

Dr. Kathy Knutson has food safety expertise in microbiology, hazard analysis, and risk assessment. As a recovering academic, she resides in Green Bay home-of-the-Packers, Wisconsin with her brilliant husband and two handsome sons. Learn more about her consulting services at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kathyknutsonphd.