Coronavirus fears prompt meat factory walkouts

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A number of workers walked out of the Seagoe Moy Park site in Portadown. Unite claimed it was up to 1,000 workers while Moy Park said it was 100 and they only left the factory for 15 minutes.  

Unite also claimed about 80 employees at the ABP Meats plant in Lurgan had refused work over fears for their safety. 

Susan Fitzgerald, Unite regional coordinating officer for Ireland called on government to act to protect factory workers. At the Lurgan site, “workers are demanding adequate social distancing of two metres be facilitated and enforced and other measures be adopted to keep workers as separated as possible”​, she said. They were also demanding that “deep-cleans are conducted on workstations where workers have self-isolated with coronavirus symptoms”, ​she added. 

However, a spokesman for ABP said: “The safety and wellbeing of colleagues is paramount and the company has introduced a variety of additional measures at all sites in recent weeks in response to Covid-19.​ 

Temperature checking, sanitising stations​ 

“These measures include protocols around essential visitors, temperature checking, additional sanitising stations, staggered breaks, additional canteen spaces and many other robust protocols that are in place in food manufacturing facilities. 

“The company is taking guidance from the relevant public health authorities and is continually reviewing the situation and taking additional steps where necessary.”​ 

Addressing the Moy Park walk out, Sean McKeever, Unite regional officer, said: “This follows the failure of the biggest employer in Northern Ireland to provide basic health and safety protections to its workforce. 

“Unite attempted to secure commitments to ensure a minimum two metre social distancing between workers and other measures to enable infection control in the face of the Coronavirus threat but our proposals were dismissed by management.” 

Robust measures​ 

However, Moy Park said it had put robust measures in place to keep staff healthy. 

“We have thoroughly reviewed our sites and continue to take on board feedback from our team members. We had already identified seven areas to enhance social distancing. These measures include staggering breaks, respacing workstations and communal areas, as well as installing screens on appropriate production lines​,” a spokesperson for Moy Park said.  

“We also continue to make provisions for those who can work from home to do so using remote technology as well as increased cleaning and the availability of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). We are continually reviewing the situation and taking additional steps where necessary.” 

The company has enlisted hundreds of new workers as a result of a surge in demand for products caused by stockpiling sparked by consumer fears about the coronavirus.

Government advice for food processing plants states​:“Food safety practices in food processing plants should continue to be delivered to the highest hygiene standards including the use of some personal protective equipment and frequent hand washing.

“All employers are expected to follow social distancing guidance, including food businesses, as far as is reasonably possible​. Where the production environment makes it difficult to do so, employers should consider what measures may be put in place to protect employees.

“Once staff have left the food processing areas and removed protective clothing, social distancing and further hand washing guidance should be adhered to.”

Workplace canteens

The guidance also stresses that workplace canteens can remain open where there are no practical alternatives for staff to obtain food. However, social distancing should be maintained, notices urging hand hygiene and social distancing should be prominent and enough hand washing stations should be available. 

Campden BRI has launched a free online COVID-19 training course for food manufacturing workers. It stressed food production workers do not have the ability to work from home like many other professions.  

The Intertek Alchemy has created a new training course COVID-19: Overview, ensuring food manufacturing workers know how to mitigate the virus’ spread, recognise symptoms, protect staff from respiratory illnesses and prevent transmission.

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