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Over the five-year period from 2008 to 2012, grocery stores experienced a steady decline in the total recordable cases of non-fatal injuries and illnesses, from 5.5 per 100 equivalent full-time workers in 2008 to 5, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) figures. These cases involved cuts and lacerations, foodborne illnesses, slips and falls, and burns, among other hazards. While this trend reflects the positive steps retailers have taken to prioritize workers’ well-being, there is still room for improvement. In a comparison of incident rates, retailers still lag behind the food and beverage sector (4.7 per 100) as a whole and other seemingly more dangerous industries, such as manufacturing (4.3 per 100).
While an often overlooked component of employee safety and health, effective packaging materials and systems can play a critical role in contributing to this improvement in the food retail environment. Enhanced packaging technologies offer operational and safety-focused benefits that can limit workplace exposures and associated costs, as well as improve a store’s approach to worker safety and health.
Limiting Sharp Object Interactions
Within grocery stores, the meat and deli departments tend to be where workers are most susceptible to injury. Every time a deli counter employee opens meat or cheese packages using kitchen shears or a knife there is the potential for a cut or laceration, most often to hands or fingers. A deli worker must utilize sharp tools daily, whether opening packages or when utilizing a deli slicer, all while working under the watchful eye of time-sensitive customers.
While not always customer-facing, butchers also repeatedly open packaged products. The back-of-house cutting and repackaging required to prepare fresh meat for the meat case is a daily routine, with even a split second lapse from fatigue or inattention having serious consequences.
As much as possible, the goal then should be to limit the number of interactions deli and meat workers have with sharp objects. Easy-open packaging provides a safer, more efficient option for the deli counter and retail backroom. With easy-open packaging, employees are exposed to one less sharp object and can more easily access products, including fresh red meats, whole chickens, and deli meats and cheeses.
Minimizing Workplace Hazards
With deli workers often involved in the preparation of meal items, such as rotisserie chickens, fried chickens, roasts, loins or ribs, there is an increased risk of workers being burned by coming into contact with hot liquids or grease, or by slipping or falling on a grease-covered or wet floor. Packaging technologies that lock in moisture and liquids reduce the presence of these workplace hazards.
One example of these solutions is Cryovac HOT-LOC Absorbent Pads. The pads absorb excess grease, fat and juices from hot, pre-cooked products common to many retail deli operations. The pads are constructed with a polymer skin capable of withstanding extreme temperature ranges. Ovenable bags, which can be used by workers to cook items such as roasts or large prepared proteins, also capture liquid product renderings for cleaner ovens and floors.
Alleviating Cross-Contamination Concerns
In a similar manner, grocery stores can utilize enhanced packaging solutions, such as leak-proof, case-ready formats, easy-open packaging and poultry bags, to create more sanitary, cleaner environments. By reducing leakage, these solutions benefit consumers and workers alike by reducing the risks associated with foodborne illness and cross-contamination.
Easy-open packages not only reduce the potential for cuts but also decrease the chance of employees being exposed to potentially harmful bacteria, such as salmonella or E. coli. For example, if a worker punctures a fresh meat product using a sharp object but does not properly clean that utensil after use, then bacteria can potentially be spread to other work areas, food items and employees. This situation can be made worse if an employee is cut or scratched when working with a fresh meat product, given the increased potential of bacterial infection from an open wound.
Factoring Packaging into a Holistic Approach
While evaluating where packaging can deliver the most benefit, retailers must weigh legitimate cost barriers, particularly given the price-driven nature of commodity products. At face value, it may seem that the adoption of improved, safety-focused packaging is only feasible for premium or private-label products. But, when factoring how certain packaging solutions help minimize potential issues or exposures and protect the long-term bottom line, a cost-benefit analysis of packaging improvements may point to a different conclusion.
Along with calculating the human cost, occupational injuries and illnesses can have a significant, compounding financial impact due to lost productivity, compensation claims and citation penalties. This is a cause for concern for any size retailer, as all fall under the same OSHA regulations. For national retailers, in particular, there is an increased chance of exposure. The most significant penalties can result from repeat citations of up to $70,000 for each subsequent violation. Once an employer is cited for a violation, the next violation within five years at any company location will be considered a repeat.
While grocery stores can reduce many workplace risks through OSHA compliance, safety communications and robust, systematic worker training on proper protocols, there is always a chance for a mishap. Advanced food packaging materials and systems provide another critical layer of defense for retail workers and managers. Collectively, these strategies allow retailers to fulfill long-term commitments to employee safety and health. When retailers embrace what is most beneficial for their workers, the result is positive personal and business outcomes—a truly winning situation for all involved.