Produce and fresh cut processors – like most companies – are feeling the effects of the current labor climate. The national unemployment rate has stayed steady at 3.9 percent the past few months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which many economists consider full employment.
For processors scouting for plant sanitation labor, typically a third-shift job that involves tedious and potentially dangerous tasks, automating sanitation tasks can help fill labor gaps while allowing current sanitation crews to focus on more impactful initiatives. Although there’s an upfront investment, the return comes quickly and can be seen in everything from reduced water and chemical use to time and plant efficiencies.
Automating sanitation processes with precise application equipment can feel like a big undertaking, but it doesn’t have to be. There are three places produce and fresh cut processors should automate first to see immediate relief, shed light on areas with the fastest return on investment as well as those with a need for advanced sanitation methods.
1. Hot Spots
In the age of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and high risks for plant contamination, automation can provide assurance that a production facility is cleaned properly. Hot spots are areas in a plant where the risk of product contamination is the highest.
Conduct an evaluation or bring in an expert consultant to identify hot spots. Damp areas that allow bacteria to grow, such as Listeria, cracks in equipment that can harbor other dangerous microbials and spots that attract pests could require more attention in your nightly sanitation routine. Automation creates a reliable, repeatable process, reducing human error to ensure these areas are clean.
2. Menial Tasks
Sanitation jobs, especially those required for overnight shifts, see high turnover rates and more mistakes. According to an article in Bloomberg, nightshift workers make five times as many mistakes as their daytime counterparts. The article also claims the graveyard shift can experience turnover rates as high as 300 percent.
Because qualified sanitation employees are hard to find, it’s important for produce and fresh cut processors to challenge and retain current employees who have a knowledge of regulations and the desire for more responsibility.
Seek out the most menial sanitation tasks, or those that are repetitive and require little skill, and consider automating those processes. Instead of tasking an employee with spraying a conveyor belt repeatedly for an extended time, use technology to automate the spray. This also eliminates the chance of human error and ensures the conveyor is consistently cleaned.
3. Potentially Dangerous Tasks
Many processing facilities have jobs or equipment that can pose a risk to worker safety. Automating potentially dangerous sanitation processes help prevent workplace injuries.
Two areas in produce and fresh cut plants that can be especially risky for sanitation crews are spiral freezers and screw conveyors. In order to manually clean spiral freezers, employees must climb into small spaces where slips and falls can occur. Unlike belt conveyors, which are typically open, screw conveyors are enclosed in a trough. This is hazardous as entanglement of the turning screw could be deadly.
The Automation ROI
As processors begin to automate sanitation procedures, reporting technology will show the return on investment in both chemical and water savings. The ability to track resource usage will paint a clear picture of significant savings as well as peace of mind.
Sanitation automation in a processing plant can be integrated one step at a time beginning with areas that will benefit most. Start by evaluating current sanitation practices and costs.
There are expert consultants, like those at Birko, who can complete a full facility evaluation to help determine where automation is needed most.
Birko experts are also continually innovating and providing processors with industry-leading sanitation equipment like the Birko by Lagafors®, which includes customized centralized and decentralized cleaning systems to support plants of all sizes. To learn more about the advantages of sanitation automation for produce and fresh cut processors, read Birko’s blog titled, “Three Ways Sanitation Automation Benefits Fresh Cut & Produce Processors.”
Automating your sanitation in the age of labor shortages and FSMA compliance doesn’t have to be scary, and you don’t have to do it alone.