Technological Advances in Food Processing Creates Regulatory Gaps

New industrial safety regulations are always coming down the line and it’s critical that managers of food manufacturing and storage facilities keep up on the latest safety technologies available to match the right product to the right process.

The last decade has brought some major technological changes to the food processing and manufacturing industry, and in most cases corresponding changes in safety regulations have followed shortly afterward.  However, there is one notable area of plant operation in which new regulations have not kept pace with technology: the use of automated stretch-wrap machines. As ubiquitous as they have become at food processing and storage facilities, there still aren’t any specific OSHA guidelines regarding proper guarding of these devices.

Currently, automated stretch-wrap machines default to the general requirements for all machines per OSHA 29 CFR 1910.212 (a) (3) (ii) stating that the point of operation of machines whose operation exposes an employee to injury SHALL BE GUARDED. The code states that “in the absence of applicable specific standards: the machine shall be so designed and constructed to prevent the operator from having any part of [his] body in the danger zone during the operating cycle.” In these instances, proper guarding devices, such as fixed fencing and automated barrier doors, should be used to isolate the stretch-wrap machine from a worker.

Additionally, every operation should at least uphold the OSHA General Requirements of All Machines. As a basic rule, companies should ensure the safety of their employees. The OSHA General Duties Clause stipulates the following:

(a) Each employer:

  • Shall furnish to each of his employees a place of employment which is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm; and…
  • Shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.

(b) Each employee shall comply with occupational safety and health standards and all rules, regulations, and orders issued pursuant to this Act, which are applicable to his own actions and conduct.

As with most other industrial processes, what was a manual operation (in this case, the arduous task of bending, pulling, and moving stretch wrap around a pallet) is now commonly automated, and in many cases robotic. Most workers are happy to push a button instead of having to “stoop and circle” a pallet of refrigerated or frozen food.

However, the hazardous aspect of this plant operation is commonly overlooked. With suppliers adding more automated functions to their floors (including automated conveyors, AGVs and AS/RS systems), it’s critical that safety methodology is similar to that of other automated or robotic processes and is compliant with current standards.

Points-of-interaction safety devices

Presence-sensing devices such as light curtains and laser scanners are potential solutions for point-of-interaction safety, whether it’s on the assembly line or at an automated stretch-wrap machine. Automated barrier doors, another option for safeguarding dangerous processes, have many of the same benefits as presence sensors, but with several additional advantages.

The most distinct benefit is that automated barrier doors provide a physical barrier that can protect an employee by containing the process and restricting access to dangerous machine movement. This is particularly important for processes such as stretch wrapping, in which inertia keeps machinery in motion – even after it has been shut down. It also prevents workers from getting close to the pallet, where stretch-wrapped products such as frozen foods might form slick areas on the ground due to condensation. Additionally, an automated barrier door can be located closer to the process, allowing for a much smaller footprint in the facility.

The most advanced roll-up automated barrier doors offer high-speed, high-cycle technology, as well as PLe safety rated non-contact interlock switches and controls. Most automated doors function from the top down, but some have been designed to operate from the ground up. This allows machine operators to easily interact with the process utilizing overhead cranes to load and unload large, heavy pallets. They are also a great option for interaction points that have a very limited space.

The future of safety

New industrial safety regulations are always coming down the line and it’s critical that managers of food manufacturing and storage facilities keep up on the latest safety technologies available to match the right product to the right process. Not only do potential machine hazards need to be taken into consideration, but the task being performed needs to be examined. It is also important to look beyond the lack of specific stretch wrap safety regulations when making equipment decisions. Instead, consider the broader context of OSHA language and guard “the point of operation of machines, whose operation exposes an employee to injury.”

Given the recent advances in their design and technology, automated barrier doors can be an excellent option to guard automated stretch-wrap machines and protect operators, ultimately increasing safety and productivity for years to come.

DISCLAIMER: The information herein is provided as a general reference regarding the use of the applicable product(s) in specific applications. This information is provided without warranty. It is your responsibility to ensure that you are using all mentioned products properly in your specific application and in accordance with all laws and regulations.