Safety is no accident in food factories

By Mike Stones

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Factory Industrial revolution Occupational safety and health Us

Industrial accidents are not funny. Does anyone need a reminder? Apparently yes; judging by how some headline writers and bloggers made light of the plight of Vincent Smith who died last week after falling into a vat of liquid chocolate at a New Jersey processing plant.

Aside from the tragedy of an untimely death, this accident underlines the disconnection between some commentators and the food industry. It highlights too, the need to safeguard employees’ safety – particularly the safety of young, temporary workers.

The puerile puns and frankly sick suggestions, admittedly from a tiny minority, left me wondering whether the writers have ever worked in industrial environments.

One UK national newspaper headlined its online report Death by chocolate: Factory worker meets a sticky end after falling into a vat of hot cocoa.

Another headline, referring to a character in Road Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,​ chose the headline: A Real Life Augustus Gloop dies in Chocolate Factory Accident​.

One US blogger, in reference to Dahl’s fictional factory workers, wrote: “Hope someone at the scene had the presence of mind to question the Oompah-loompahs​.”

All comments made in terrible taste. But what is so funny about the food industry? Would the headline writers and bloggers have responded with equally bad taste remarks had they been writing about a fatality on a construction site or in a car manufacturing plant?

Instead of pointless puns, the writers should have used their influence to highlight the risks of injury in food factories and how they can best be minimized. Helping to prevent even just one fatality would be a magnificent achievement.

Safeguard safety standards

In particular, the writers should have highlighted the need to protect young and temporary workers. Smith, aged-29, was a temporary worker who had been employed in the factory for only two weeks, according to the local website

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the US Department of Labor, is investigating the accident which took place at the processing plant, owned by Cocoa Services Inc., and managed and operated by Lyons and Sons.

Until that investigation is complete, it would be inappropriate to comment on the safety standards in place in the New Jersey factory. But, in general terms, as the margin between profit and loss for some food manufacturers grows ever slimmer it becomes even more important to ensure that rigorous safety standards are put in place. And that they are understood and respected by everyone; particularly part-time workers.

Young and temporary workers can, perhaps by definition, sometimes be more vulnerable than their older and more experienced full-time colleagues.

Although there is no information on the age of casualties in US food factories, the Department of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries reported 51 deaths in food manufacturing last year. That compares with a total of 400 fatalities in all US manufacturing.

Three fatalities

But, across the Atlantic, there are growing concerns about the rising number of fatalities in UK food and drink processing. Richard Morgan, head of food in the Health and Safety Executive told our sister publication Food Manufacture​: “We have had three fatalities in the first quarter of this year, which starts in April, so we’re worried that we will have more than the normal amount​.”

Over the past 10 years UK food and drink processors have managed to contain the number of fatalities to 33 or an average of three a year, according to HSE statistics.

In comparison there were 26 fatal injuries to agricultural workers in 2007-2008 and 32 fatal injuries to general manufacturing workers in the same period, reports HSE statistics.

So, on both sides of the Atlantic, there’s good cause to ensure all staff thoroughly understand safety procedures. They may be perceived by some as being boring, perhaps even an encumbrance to be tolerated.

But following them strictly may ultimately make all the difference between life and death.

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