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Managing the risk of COVID-19 exposure: abattoirs and meat processing industry

Preventing and controlling worker exposure to COVID-19 in the meat and poultry processing industries.

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Reporting confirmed cases of COVID-19

Employers are required to notify SafeWork immediately when a worker tests positive for Coronavirus (COVID-19).  

Report a confirmed positive case of COVID-19.

Prepare a COVID-19 Safety Plan

All meat processing facilities operating onsite in NSW should have a COVID-19 Safety Plan.

A COVID-19 Safety Plan can be developed using the general COVID-19 Safety Plan template, but it should include the specific guidance for the meat processing industry given here.

How are my WHS obligations impacted by the restrictions?

There is no change to your obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 No 10 (WHS Act) and Work Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (WHS Regulations) as a result of the restrictions. Exposure to COVID-19 is a potential workplace hazard.

Preparation of a COVID Safe Plan forms part of the development of a safe system of work. However, having a COVID Safe Plan and complying with Chief Health Officer (CHO) directions does not necessarily mean you have complied with your duties under the WHS Act and Work Health and Safety (WHS) Regulations.

You must follow any health directions that apply to how your business must operate as well as ensure that you are meeting your obligations under the WHS Act. Worker must also comply with their duties under the WHS Act.

COVID-19 (Coronavirus) and the meat and poultry processing industry

A COVID-19 infection can cause mild to severe respiratory illness. The most common COVID-19 symptoms reported are:

  • fever
  • chills or sweats
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • shortness of breath
  • runny nose
  • loss of sense of smell
  • fatigue or tiredness

COVID-19 is most likely to spread from person to person through:

  • close contact with an infected person
  • touching objects or surfaces (such as door handles and handrails) contaminated by a person with the infection.

Workers in the meat and poultry processing industry are not exposed to COVID-19 through the meat products they handle, however there is the potential for an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to tasks that normally require close interaction between workers such as processing lines and the rapid nature of the work.

Under the WHS Act workers have a duty to provide and maintain, so far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of workers. This includes preventing risks to health (including psychological health) and safety associated with potential exposure to COVID-19.

Workers have a duty to take reasonable care of their own and others health and safety in the workplace and cooperate with their employers about any action they take to comply with the OHS Act or Regulations.

Identifying risks

Employers must identify hazards and assess the level of risk to the health of workers from exposure to COVID-19 at their workplace. This must be done in consultation with health and safety representatives (HSRs), if any, and workers, so far as is reasonably practicable.

Each group of workers in the workplace should be considered, from delivery of raw product to final product. This may include such areas as kill floor, plucking, boning, manufacturing, packaging, storage, warehouse, forklift movement, cleaning, maintenance, and cafeteria staff.

Some of the main factors that could contribute to meat and poultry workers contracting COVID-19 are:

  1. Distance between workers
    Workers often work close to one another on processing lines. Workers may also be near one another at other locations, such as entrances/exits to the facility, clocking in/out points, break rooms, washrooms, boot rooms, locker/changing rooms, showers and toilets, and washing rooms prior to entry into kill floors or processing rooms.
  2. Duration of close interaction
    Workers may often have prolonged close interaction with each other. Continued close interaction with potentially infectious individuals increases the risk of Coronavirus (COVID-19) transmission.
  3. Type of close interaction
    Workers may be exposed to the infectious virus through respiratory droplets in the air, for example when workers in the plant who have the virus, cough or sneeze, or other workers breathe in contaminated aerosols from exhaled air. It is also possible that exposure could occur from contact with contaminated surfaces or objects, such as tools, workstations, or break room tables.
  4. Other distinctive factors that may increase risk among meat and poultry workers include
    • sharing transport such as ride-share vans or shuttle vehicles, car-pools, and public transportation
    • frequent contact with fellow workers in community settings in areas where there is ongoing community transmission.

Controlling the risks of exposure to Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Face coverings in workplaces

Advice on face coverings is available here. This advice will be updated as the COVID-19 situation changes. The use of face visors may want to be considered if worn for long period for comfort, managing fogging, wetness or to adjust for those wearing prescription glasses.

Where a risk to health is identified at a workplace, employers must, so far as is reasonably practicable, eliminate the risk. Where it is not possible to eliminate the risk, it must be reduced, so far as is reasonably practicable.

Employers also have a duty to consult with workers and Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) (if any), so far as is reasonably practicable, on matters related to health or safety that directly affect or are likely to directly affect them. This includes consultation on decisions about how to control risks associated with COVID-19.

Every workplace will need to develop a unique plan to minimise the risk by introducing different control measures. The types of control measures required depends on the level of risk as well as the availability and suitability of controls for each workplace, including individual work areas.

Screening and quarantining

To minimise the risk of exposure to COVID-19, employers should consider implementing a process to screen workers before entry into the workplace to start their shift. 

The process could include:

  • asking workers if they have travelled or been in contact with any confirmed cases of COVID-19, or have had any of the common symptoms in the past 48 hours (see list above)
  • addition measures such as staff signing a standardised declaration form to formalise previous contacts/travel 
  • conducting temperature checks with touch-free thermometers. It should be noted that such tests will not tell whether a person has Coronavirus (COVID-19). A person may have a temperature for other reasons or be on medication that reduces their temperature or may be asymptomatic. If used, temperature checks should only be used as a guide along with other tools to assist in making decisions. 

Equipment for conducting temperature checks needs to be clean and reliable, and protocols should be in place in the event of elevated temperatures.  Persons undertaking temperature checks of workers need to be trained in the correct and safe use of these non-contact thermometers. E.g. environmental factors such as hot or cold air-conditioning may have an impact on accuracy of measurement.

Policies and procedures for screening workers should be developed in consultation with workers, Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) and occupational medical professionals. 

If an worker is at work and develops symptoms of COVID-19, the employer should provide a mask where possible and ensure that the worker gets tested at a (COVID-19) clinic and then follows the self-isolation guidance available on the NSW Health website.

An employer's duty to eliminate or reduce risks associated with exposure to COVID-19, so far as is reasonably practicable, includes ensuring that:

  • workers know what to do or who to notify if they feel unwell or suspect they've been infected
  • any unwell worker does not attend the workplace, including workers who have been tested for COVID-19, or who are confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Notifiable incidents and Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 a PCBU is required to notify SafeWork NSW of serious illnesses (including COVID –19) arising out of work immediately on 13 10 50.

For more information see the guidance Notifiable incidents involving Coronavirus (COVID-19).

Record keeping

Management needs to ensure that records, including contact details, shifts worked and if possible social and family contacts outside work are kept up to date. In the event of a case this information will be required within the first 2-4 hours after notification so that contact tracing and home isolation can begin.  Ensure the information recorded is stored confidentially and securely and only used for the purpose of COVID-19 contact tracing.

Physical distancing

One of the ways COVID-19 spreads is by people coughing or sneezing, causing droplets to transmit from one person to another. Loud speech or yelling results in potentially contaminated aerosols travelling further to affect other workers. That is why one of the best ways to protect others is to practise physical distancing.

Physical distancing means maintaining a distance of at least 1.5m between people wherever possible. This may require moving workstations where practicable or adjusting work practices. When designing workplaces there should be on average no more than 1 person per 4 square metres of floor space.
Physical distancing should be practised and encouraged in meat and poultry processing workplaces. This includes offices, the factory floor, storerooms and warehouses, entry and exit points, amenities (toilets and change rooms), dining and smoking areas, and at meetings.

Ways employers and workers can encourage physical distancing

  • Establish regular communication to reinforce the need to maintain physical distancing and other control measures. Any non-essential face-to-face meetings or training should be postponed or cancelled.
  • Provide regular messaging on areas identified by NSW Health for increased testing.
  • Consider different modes of communication relevant to your work force e.g. face book page.
  • Consider the workforce characteristics and tailor messaging and health and safety signage accordingly (e.g. different languages).
  • Encourage workers to avoid car-pooling if possible.
  • Ensure supervisors or designated persons monitor, encourage and facilitate distancing, particularly on processing floors, and hand washing and sanitising.

  • Consider increasing the time separation between shifts.
  • If one shift is normally operated, consider splitting workers over two shifts if practicable. These shifts should not overlap and be able to be isolated socially from each other. This may be the only means of keeping the plant operable if an entire processing room is deemed to be a close contact of the first case.
  • Consider grouping work teams into sub-teams, to reduce the number of different people each worker works directly next to. This may minimise the spread of COVID-19 if present in the workplace, minimise the number of workers that need to quarantine if required, and increase the effectiveness of any changed systems of work (such as split shifts).
  • If possible, group teams who may socialise together outside of work (e.g. sporting groups) to minimise the risk of introduction from non-work environment into the broader workplace.
  • Consider visual prompts to enforce compliance with grouping of staff such as colour coded work areas and workers in each section wear different coloured hairnets for example.
  • Maintain discrete team grouping at meal breaks. 
  • Stagger arrival, departure and break times where practicable to avoid congestion.
  • Slow down production in order to create additional time to reduce congestion in boot wash and change and locker rooms.
  • Consider providing additional leave where leave is necessary due to COVID-19. This may reduce the risk of workers attending work when unwell due to financial needs.
  • Record staff positions each day for trace back purposes.

  • Configure communal work areas so that workers are spaced at least 1.5m apart, if possible. Changes in production practices may be necessary in order to maintain appropriate distances between workers.
  • Use floor markings to provide minimum physical distancing guides between workstations.
  • Provide visual reminders of social distancing requirements at areas where closer working may occur.
  • Modify the alignment of workstations so that workers do not face one another.
  • Create single file pathways with markings every 1.5m.
  • Minimise the build-up of workers waiting to enter and exit the workplace and various parts of the workplace by:
    • allocating different doors for entry and exit throughout the workplace where possible
    • using an entry and exit system to the site that is as contactless as possible and quick to enter and exit
    • using floor markings to provide minimum physical distancing guides at entrances and exits.
  • Where allocated smoke areas exist, ensure smokers are at least 1.5m apart. This could be achieved by creating markings on the ground and, if necessary, extending the allocated smoking area.
  • Isolate sections of bench seating to ensure 1.5m distancing.
  • Consider mapping supervisors or staff who have to move room to room via QR codes at each area.

  • Arrange separate lunchrooms for work teams if possible.
  • Identify additional or alternative break and lunch areas for workers such as training and conference rooms, or portables.
  • Provide each worker with a permanent chair in the lunchroom. Where this is not practicable, the employer must ensure appropriate cleaning and disinfecting occurs between lunchroom access by different groups.
  • Install barriers on tables and between chairs in lunchrooms. 
  • Increase the number of areas for changing, or allow more time for changing, and consider staggering change times where practicable.
  • Change taps on site to knee or foot-operated, create partitions between taps and between hoses, and use exhaust fans to reduce the high humidity.
  • Limit each table to 2 people, at each end, unless greater distancing can be achieved (remove excess seats), otherwise add partitions to tables.
  • Increase amenities on site (including portable toilets and wash areas) if required to maintain 1.5m distances.
  • Ensure each worker has their own equipment/tools.
  • Increase the number of hand washing facilities.
  • Increase the number of communally accessed devices such as microwaves used to reheat food to increase options for cleaning between use.

  • Consider consulting with a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning engineer to ensure adequate ventilation in work areas to help minimise workers’ potential exposures.
  • Dilution ventilation might also be used in other worker-concentrated areas such as boot and wash areas to dilute those environments and further reduce any potential risk.
  • If fans such as pedestal fans or hard mounted fans are used in the workplace, minimise air from fans blowing from one worker directly at another.
  • Where 1.5m distancing between workers is not possible, install screens or plastic strip curtains where practicable to minimise the risk of droplet transmission from one worker to another. Screens need to be high enough to prevent potential droplets from coughing or sneezing directly reaching other workers.
  • If physical distancing measures introduce new health and safety risks, employers must manage those risks too.
  • The NSW Government has posters and other resources aimed at educating the workers and the public about Coronavirus (COVID-19). These can be placed in client-facing work environments (for example in workplace entrances).

Physical distancing practice examples

Bad

Workers are within 1.5 metres of one another, side by side or facing workstations.

Diagram showing workers less than 1.5 metres apart

Good

Workers are spaced at least 1.5 metres apart, not facing one another.

Other configurations may be used to achieve similar distancing between workers.

Diagram showing workers more than 1.5 metres apart

Good

Physical barriers such as partitions, separate workers from each other.

Partitions may need to be adjusted to integrate with the processing line or other manufacturing equipment.

Diagram showing workers more than 1.5 metres apart with a partition between them

Good

Physical barriers such as partitions, separate workers from each other.

Partitions may need to be adjusted to integrate with the processing line or other manufacturing equipment, including where workers need to perform tasks in tandem across with each other.

For tasks performed in tandem, with workers across from one another, partitions can be positioned to protect workers while allowing the pass-through of materials.

Diagram showing workers working in tandem with a partition between them

Source: These images have been adapted from the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), Meat and Poultry Packing Industry: Interim Guidance from CDC and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA).

Hygiene

The amount of time the Coronavirus (COVID-19) survives on inanimate objects and surfaces varies. Environmental cleaning is one way to remove the virus.

Follow the SafeWork advice about cleaning. Additional cleaning information is provided by the NSW Clinical Excellence Commission (CEC).

Usual cleaning regimes should be increased, including at the end of each shift. In addition:

  • Ensure frequently touched surfaces are cleaned and disinfected regularly with appropriate detergent or disinfectant solutions.
  • Frequently cleanse and disinfect personal items used in the workplace such as glasses and phones.
  • Clean boot and washrooms (including hoses) after each major break.
  • Workplace amenities including kitchens, lunchrooms, common areas, change rooms, toilets, showers, drink fountains and vending machines should be cleaned and disinfected, and the frequency of this cleaning should increase.
  • Additional cleaning and hygiene controls that may be required include:
    • Ensure that surfaces are cleaned if an worker spreads droplets (such as sneezing, coughing or vomiting).
    • Ensure people who are conducting cleaning wear gloves and follow manufacturer's recommendations for use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). For example, workers may need protective eye wear when using some chemicals. Where possible, wash hands with soap and water after cleaning or, if washing is not possible, use alcohol-based hand sanitiser.
    • Make alcohol-based hand sanitiser available throughout the workplace.
    • Provide closed bins in appropriate locations for workers to hygienically dispose of waste such as used tissues as soon as possible after use.
    • Provide alcohol-based hand sanitiser for workers to use after they dispose of their waste.
    • Where workers' work clothes are washed on site, appropriate procedures should be in place and reviewed to ensure effectiveness.
    • Consider increasing the use of fresh (outside) air and reducing the use of recirculated air-conditioning in common areas.

Ensure all workers practise good hygiene, including by:

  • washing hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, including before and after eating and going to the toilet
  • covering coughs and sneezes with an elbow or a tissue
  • avoiding touching the eyes, nose and mouth
  • immediately disposing of tissues into a waste bin then washing hands
  • using alcohol-based hand sanitisers
  • cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and shared equipment after use
  • limiting contact with others, including shaking hands.

Employers should ensure that washroom facilities for workers have adequate facilities for good hygiene including clean running water, and an adequate supply of soap, water, single-use paper hand towels or hand drying machines, and toilet paper. These must be kept clean, properly stocked and in good working order.

Hand sanitizer should be placed in multiple locations to encourage hand hygiene. If possible, choose hand sanitizer stations that are touch-free.

Employers should also consider other ways to promote personal hygiene, such as:

  • building additional short breaks into staff schedules to increase the frequency that staff can wash their hands
  • extending currently rostered breaks to allow workers to follow proper hygiene procedures
  • providing tissues and no-touch trash receptacles (e.g. foot pedal-operated) for workers to use
  • educating workers that cigarettes and smokeless tobacco use can lead to increased contact between potentially contaminated hands and mouths, and that avoiding these products may reduce the risk of infection
  • educating workers not to share items such as drink bottles or cigarettes
  • reducing the number of touch points for workers, for example by leaving access doors open where appropriate.

Workers should be educated to avoid touching their faces, including their eyes, noses, and mouths, particularly until after they have thoroughly washed their hands upon completing work and/or after removing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

PPE is a protection of last resort due to the need to ensure controls and training to ensure appropriate fit, reduce hand contact with masks and appropriate disposal for example, to reduce exposure.

In some cases, after the above controls (including physical distancing and the use of barriers) have been considered and implemented or are impractical, appropriate masks or face shields would need to be provided to the risk of droplet exposure. 

Appropriate masks include respirators (that meet the Australian/New Zealand Standard on Respiratory protective devices (AS/NZS 1716:2012) or its equivalent) and surgical masks, noting that surgical masks would be adequate and that respirators should be primarily reserved for specialist healthcare procedures.

Where PPE (such as masks or face shields) is being relied on as a control measure:

  • employers must ensure that adequate PPE is available on site and within easy access
  • training on the use and maintenance of the PPE needs to be provided, along with supervision to ensure it is appropriately used
  • disposable masks should be disposed of after a break
  • non-disposable masks need to be appropriately cleaned, stored/disposed when going on a break
  • face shields or protective eyewear that is reusable must be appropriately cleaned and disinfected after each use.

Deliveries, contractors and visitors attending the workplace

Non-essential visits to the workplace should be cancelled or postponed.

Minimise the number of workers attending to deliveries and contractors as much as possible.

Delivery drivers and other contractors who need to attend the workplace, to provide maintenance or repair services or perform other essential activities, should be given clear instructions of requirements while they are on site.

Ensure handwashing facilities, or if not possible, alcohol-based hand sanitiser, is readily available for workers after physically handling deliveries.

Direct visiting delivery drivers and contractors to remain in vehicles and use contactless methods such as mobile phones to communicate with workers wherever possible.

Direct visiting delivery drivers and contractors to use alcohol-based hand sanitiser before handling products being delivered.

Use, and ask delivery drivers and contractors to use, electronic paperwork where possible, to minimise physical interaction. Where possible, set up alternatives to requiring signatures. For instance, see whether a confirmation email or a photo of the loaded or unloaded goods can be accepted as proof of delivery or collection (as applicable).

Last updated: 29 September 2020

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