Various references to protective clothing in food plants can be found in state and federal publications, however, none is specific as to requirements beyond general standards. Take, for example, the definitions and practices of food handling and processing for institutions and commercial enterprises from the Arizona Department of Health, which states: “Sanitary protective clothing, hair covering, and footwear must be worn and maintained in a clean, sanitary manner.” Or that of the Dairy Practices Council, noting that dairies should “provide, wash, and maintain outer clothing for plant personnel,” and “employees must wear a clean uniform when at work.”
Even the guidelines of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Plan (HACCP) are vague, allowing for open-ended interpretation, said Scott Carlson, sales manager for PolyConversions (PolyCo), explaining, “There are no specific, direct guidelines in regard to apparel.”
Because there is no single standard, said Mark Zittel, Aramark Uniform Services marketing director, plants need to create their own. “Some have uniforms as part of their plan,” he said, with the objectives of keeping employees safe and sanitary and protecting the product from cross contamination.
With the lack of standards, a lot is left to interpretation by inspectors, Carlson said, so it can be difficult to know the best approach for sanitary compliance by your establishment.
His best advice is to “look at it as packaging for people,” he said, “as protecting product from people and people from product.” The clothing worn by employees working with food needs to offer viable, effective protection for your food product and your people, with specifics determined by the product you produce.
For example, he said, those at the front end of meat production, the slaughtering process, should wear heavier apparel to protect themselves from knives, bones, etc. Toward the end of the chain, apparel is often more focused toward protecting the product rather than the people.
Despite the lack of specific standards, however, there are some general guidelines that plants can follow to ensure uniforms fit their sanitation plans:
- Avoid buttons. Because buttons can come off and fall into product, uniforms should fasten with snaps or similar closures.
- Restrict pockets. Pockets allow employees to carry personal items that could fall into product. Avoidance of pockets above the waistline is particularly important, as items can drop out when personnel lean over.
- Use durable materials. Uniforms should be made of a durable, non-absorbent material that will hold up in food plant environments and protect against contact, splash, or spills. Single-use uniforms are also an option that allow for disposal.
- Cover arms and legs. While workers may wear gloves and aprons, if they are wearing short sleeves that expose arm hair and skin, contamination can still occur. “It’s a matter of covering up,” Carlson said.
- Change uniforms between areas. Workers should change uniforms when going from areas where cross contamination can be of concern, such as between raw and finished product areas. Having color-coded uniforms specific to each area can further prevent contamination—and keep personnel and visitors, in authorized areas. The color-coding can be of the full uniform, lab coat, or just the hairnet.
- Keep uniforms clean. As noted in the paper “HACCP Considerations in Cleaning and Sanitizing Multi-Use Synthetic Garments” by industry consultant Nelson Slavik, it is necessary to evaluate both the garment and the process by which the garment is to be cleaned and sanitized as two separate, but integral, critical control points. “The garment must provide in its construction and in its material composition the ability to be effectively cleaned and sanitized over the lifetime of its use. Once it is determined that the garment meets that required criteria, the process of cleaning/sanitizing must be shown to be consistent and effective for that garment.”
- Validate your supplier. If incoming uniforms aren’t sanitary, your efforts will have little effect. Check incoming shipments as you would any incoming ingredient—ensuring the truck is clean, and garments are in protective packaging. Verify that your suppliers have an internal quality management program; follow HACCP guidelines; and/or have third-party auditing of their practices and procedures.
While it has always been of focus in food plants, the general awareness of and attention to food safety has been heightened with the increased regulation and public exposure, and, Zittel said, “The role of uniforms is a vital part of that. It may not always be top of mind, but workers do need to wear uniforms, and uniforms do come in contact with food products, so you need to ensure they remain as clean and sanitary as possible.”
The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.