Food and drink sector conference 2019

The role of line managers in supporting employees with health issues, modern slavery, and the use of new technology in the sector featured at this year’s event.

Image credit | Steve Burden

“Hopefully we can make a sea change in this space.” That was Clare Forshaw’s call to action as she explored how businesses could be at the forefront in responding effectively to physical and mental health issues faced by employees.

She told delegates at the annual Food and Drink Manufacturing Health and Safety Conference: “The idea is we keep people in work, keep them productive and keep them healthy.”

Forshaw, an occupational health and hygiene partner at consultancy Park Health and Safety, said line managers played a key role in dealing with common health problems, including musculoskeletal disorders and work-related stress.

Highlighting the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) toolbox for controlling workplace risks, she said line managers were well placed to identify issues early and look for solutions. 

“If someone is struggling with a back problem, for example, they can go to their line manager,” said Forshaw. “The toolbox helps people adapt work and manage the symptoms. This is better than having them go to their GP and get a sick note. It is about getting in early and working with people on solutions.”

Dr John Rowe, head of the HSE’s manufacturing and utilities unit, also focused on health issues at the event on 1-2 October in Lincolnshire. He announced changes in the HSE’s enforcement position on work-related stress. The regulator will now investigate concerns raised about work-related stress issues if they meet agreed criteria. Explaining the change, he said stress was “a big issue” in workplaces and referred to a study that found two organisations in five were not properly assessing the risks.

“Society expects us to be focused on physical and mental health,” he added. Looking at the physical health issues in the food and drink sector, the incidences of musculoskeletal disorders and occupational lung disease are significant. 

The former, according to an industry survey, is the biggest concern for half of businesses. It affected 4,000 workers a year, said Rowe, while one injury in five reported under RIDDOR related to manual handling. “We have still got a big problem in this area in this industry,” he said. “We are not making enough inroads when it comes to manual handling issues.”

Modern slavery

As well as being challenged to consider how they managed health risks, delegates were also asked to consider what they – and their organisations – were doing to tackle exploitation in the labour market. 

Mark Heath, deputy director of business change at the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, said everyone had a role to play by asking questions about work supply. The food services industry – including catering, restaurants, and food packaging and processing – is exceptionally prone to labour exploitation.

Heath asked: “Do we question who provides food for events like this? Do we question who cleans our hotel rooms? Society doesn’t ask enough questions in this area.” 

The supply of labour, he said, was a very lucrative business, and criminals found it easy to infiltrate supply chains. “This is a business model that criminal entrepreneurs have identified and pursue. There will always be demand for labour. There will be workers required to do whatever a business needs. So that means there is an opportunity for people to exploit that labour,” he said. 

Many victims were unaware that they were being exploited, and it was difficult to identify them, said Heath. “That is why we have to ask questions and have that conversation. We can encourage an environment where people are happy to talk about their circumstances.”

Richard Orton, IOSH’s director of strategy and business development, said regulators and investors were putting more pressure on employers to prove they behave ethically, one of the markers being to ensure modern slavery is not involved in their operations. 

Highlighting that 30% of the workforce will be aged 55 or over by 2030 – as well as almost one-third being independent workers – he explored the role that safety and health professionals can play in ensuring people are included in discussions about sustainability.

Orton challenged delegates to consider how they would promote their work with a senior leader in ‘an elevator conversation’. “It’s your chance to let them know what your role is, how you contribute to the business, how there is a 120% return on investment for businesses that treat safety and health as a priority.” 

Crucial to this process was being able to speak the language of business, he said. There was little point in safety and health professionals having technical knowledge if they could not impart that within an organisation, and influence policy at the top level.

Value added

Food manufacturer Samworth Brothers is one business increasingly seeing the value of good safety and health management. Paul Davey, the group executive board director who joined the board in 2015 when the business was under HSE scrutiny, was determined to oversee a step-change in how employees were protected. 

He said the company was on a multi-year journey to meet various commitments, including improving understanding of risk across the business, implementing a safety and health strategy, and measuring and monitoring performance.

“Behaviour has changed around near-misses,” Davey said. “If we have a ‘red’ incident, a safety alert is created and the learning is discussed around the business. This was a really important part of our journey.”

Also central to improvement has been the establishment of a strong safety and health team and the investment that businesses make to grow their OSH ‘talent pool’. 

Many businesses are turning to new technologies to enhance their safety and health training, said Ben Bennett, managing director of digital transformation business Luminous Group. He looked at how virtual reality has been used in training to allow participants to experience dangerous situations without compromising their safety.

But, he said, technology was continuing to move at pace, and the advent of mixed reality – the fusion of physical and digital content – provided even greater opportunities, which enabled experts based in remote locations to be more easily contacted for advice. 

Delegates also heard from Chris Moon, a former soldier and charity worker, who spoke about his incredible story of being captured by Khmer Rouge guerrillas in Cambodia and then being severely injured in a landmine explosion. Despite losing an arm and leg in the blast, he remains positive and has taken part in many ultramarathons, which are races longer than the traditional distance of 42 km (26 miles).

Moon encouraged delegates to always consider what they could achieve rather than what they couldn’t, adding that the biggest limits were those created by over-analysing situations. “It’s not what we are, but what we should be,” he said. 

The conference coincided with the announcement of the winners of the International Food and Drink Health and Safety Awards (see below). 

Award winners

AB Azucarera Iberia, part of the AB Sugar Group, won this year’s International Food and Drink Health and Safety Awards for its new measurement and reward system which significantly reduced accidents. The runners-up were Allied Bakeries and Finlays, last year’s winner.



Marcus Boocock is a communications officer at IOSH. He was previously a journalist at the Nottingham Post.

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