Building Supply Chain Resilience By Ensuring Safe Facility Operations

Tuesday, September 8th, 2020

As countries emerge from lockdown restrictions and food manufacturers are resuming operations, measures need to be put in place to safeguard the health and safety of employees. In an interview with Asia Pacific Food Industry (APFI), Isaac Teh, Vice President and General Manager Food & Beverage Southeast Asia at Ecolab, discusses facility risk management and the importance in prioritising public health, food safety & brand reputation.

Isaac Teh, VP and GM, F&B SEA, Ecolab


  1. What is the impact of the pandemic on food safety and worker’s health?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is still investigating to firm up whether the coronavirus can be transmitted via food. It can, however, be transmitted via human interaction, movement and surfaces that involve food and beverages. After all, it is a respiratory virus that only infects people after it enters their respiratory system.

This is why specific worker safety guidelines need to be put in place, on top of the existing cleaning & sanitation operation. It should be a proactive approach on the part of F&B manufacturers, instead of a reactive one. Plants should be equipped with guidelines, protocols and approved safety measures before an incident happens. Workers work very closely together, often shoulder-to-shoulder, for many hours over their shifts, due to the nature of their jobs. Commuting to the plant may be done in groups, such as bringing in workers via a bus or shuttle services. Sometimes, workers also live in dormitory settings or with many other people, increasing close contact with their community outside of work.


  1. How critical is the health and safety of workers in maintaining a resilient food supply chain?

According to PwC, the food value chain contributes to around 17 percent of Southeast Asia’s total GDP. The share of employment is even higher, with the industry accounting for close to 116 million jobs in the region, or 35 percent of the total labor force.

As many areas of the supply chain are highly dependent on labour, national restrictions on the movement and gatherings of people have significantly impacted businesses’ ability to sustain their operations. Providentially, Singapore and Malaysia have recently agreed to allow cross-border travel for business and work purposes. With the establishment of a Reciprocal Green Lane, what business leaders should therefore be asking now is how they can guarantee or safeguard the safety of their people first.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), employers are mandated to provide a safe working environment for their workers, something that has never been more important today. Increased focus in people management, such as specialised education and training about how workers can reduce the spread of the virus, takes absolute priority.


  1. How do we assess the risks involved in plant operations during this unprecedented time?

As the economies in Southeast Asia begin to open and production resumes, workers and employers must recognise the need for cleaner, safer and healthier work environments.

First, develop a communication plan within the workplace. Management should inform staff about the proactive measures they are taking to protect workers’ health and the actions that all workers should take in accordance with human resource policies.

Second, create a COVID-19 Assessment and Control Plan. This should be completed by a workplace coordinator whose responsibilities cover COVID-19 assessment and control planning. The coordinator’s name and contact information should be communicated to all workers. The coordinator and facility management should be aware of, and follow, all applicable regulations and public health agency guidelines. It is important to establish ongoing communications with these same agencies to help ensure access to the latest information.

Lastly, deploy a broad suite of measures to practice social distancing and ensure workers can employ good personal hygiene practices. As mentioned, staff training is important to enhance their awareness on infectious diseases and measures that can be taken to help reduce infection risk.


  1. What are some practices or solutions to ensure a safe working environment?

Ecolab has recently published a COVID-19 Worker Safety Protocol. Having an operational checklist like this would ensure the relevant risks are identified and risk management strategies are developed before a potential case is identified. Moreover, it will make it easier to appropriately direct responses if or when challenges occur, such as when national restrictions or regulations have been implemented.

Personally, I believe that this gives employees more responsibility to take their health and safety into their own hands. Information about how to implement the various infection prevention and control measures, how to recognise signs and symptoms of infection, and ways to prevent exposure to the virus, should be communicated widely and effectively.


  1. How should F&B manufacturers embrace the new normal as the industry heads towards recovery?

It’s considered that COVID-19 is a public health concern, not a food safety concern. However, they are heavily interlinked behind the scenes. F&B manufactures must therefore equally prioritise public health, food safety and – to the surprise of many – brand reputation.

There are simple ways to do this. To target public health, encourage workers who are sick to stay at home. To target food safety, consider naming an employee or a key point of contact to be focused on ensuring that COVID-19 practices are being done in the factory. To target brand reputation, promote what you are implementing and make cleaning and sanitisation overt and visible as much as possible.

An example is the recent food scare from China. A handful of packaging samples of imported shrimp tested positive for COVID-19. The test result does not mean the virus is contagious but reflects the loopholes in companies’ food safety regulations. Thus, overlooking an aspect or prioritising one over the other will definitely increase the likelihood of such an incident to happen.

It is important to keep all this in mind, especially when we are still learning about the developments and risks of the virus. There is no hard and fast rule to follow, only guidelines from trusted agencies and global leaders to help us navigate through rough waters. However, I remain confident and positive that F&B manufacturers in Asia can embrace the new normal as the industry heads towards recovery.


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