Keeping Your Fruits And Vegetables Safe: Best Practices For Worker Hygiene And Biosecurity In The Greenhouse

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 19 percent of foodborne outbreaks between 1993 and 1997 were associated with poor personal hygiene. In this article, we focus on food safety practices related to workers, as well as biosecurity concerns in the greenhouse.

The goals for this article are for you to: 1) identify practices workers are doing that can increase food safety risks and 2) identify factors that can increase biosecurity risks within your facilities.

Make Personal Hygiene A Top Priority

Training employees about proper produce handling during production, harvest, packing, processing and distribution and within retail settings is critical to ensure food safety risk is minimized. This training should focus around Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP).

Personal hygiene is a major area of concern. Depending on the worker’s background, their personal hygiene practices may not meet required standards. One area that needs to be emphasized is handwashing. Workers should be trained on how to properly wash their hands (e.g., 20 seconds with soap and water) and taught when it is appropriate to wash their hands. Employers should teach workers to wash their hands before starting work, after using the bathroom and after coughing or sneezing, as well as after eating, drinking, smoking, touching chemicals or their containers and taking breaks. Posters can serve as reminders of proper procedures in restrooms.

In addition to handwashing, workers should be trained to identify symptoms that would prevent them from coming to work (e.g., fever, sore throat, diarrhea or reported diseases) and when injuries require medical attention (e.g., open wounds, infections or cuts). If a worker has the above symptoms, then the likelihood of passing their bacteria/virus into the produce is increased. Open wounds and cuts should be covered and, in the case that blood, vomit or other bodily fluids comes into contact with the produce, there needs to be training and policies in place to direct the employees on how to handle the contaminated produce, as well as the surfaces contaminated.

Clothing and shoes can carry harmful microorganisms. Greenhouses need to have a policy on appropriate clothing and shoes to be worn. For example, clothing used at another facility or with livestock can introduce harmful microorganisms into your facility and onto your final crop. Depending on the crops and facility, workers’ clothing may get heavily soiled (e.g., planting or compost management) during daily activities and will need to be changed prior to harvesting, sorting and packaging. This may mean that facilities need to buy specific boots or aprons to be used when harvesting crops, sorting and packaging produce.

Watch For Potential Contaminants

Besides personal hygiene, workers need to be trained on ways to minimize the potential for physical and chemical contamination. For example, broken glass, pots or metal fragments can be incorporated into crops when harvested. A policy specific to inspecting incoming supplies and supplies used during growing, harvesting and packaging can reduce the likelihood of these items ending up in the final product.

Visual inspection is another tool that can minimize food safety risks. Workers should be trained to be watchful of animal fecal contamination, dead animals or animal parts that could have landed on equipment, growing beds, tools and produce. Greenhouses should have policies that are taught to employees on how to properly clean and discard any animal contaminants found on these items.

Another important area to train workers on is chemical use. Overdosing fertilizers and contact-surface sanitizers can pose life-threatening problems to consumers. Workers need to be trained on proper storage and use of chemicals. Other areas that require training for employees are appropriate water sources, soil sources, fertilizer or composting, sorting and sanitation of tools and equipment.

Reduce Biosecurity Concerns With Visitor Policies

Biosecurity is a set of measures designed to protect food production and processing facilities from the entry and spread of pests and disease. These measures should include visitor policies and restriction of hazardous materials, along with surveillance measures.

Greenhouses need to establish a policy for managing visitors and contractors within their facilities that includes a list of rules that the visitors must follow within the facilities, along with guidance on restriction of persons from entering the grounds.

It is recommended that visitors should: wash their hands prior to entering production areas; not touch any crops, and they should not have had any illness symptoms (i.e. fever, sore throat, vomiting, diarrhea or reportable diseases) within the previous 24 hours. Visitors should also tour your facility starting with the final product to the seedlings. It is also recommended that greenhouses maintain a log to monitor who is entering their facilities.

Repairmen and other contractors may need to come into your facilities, and it is important to have guidance for these persons, as well. It is important to require these people to: wash their hands when entering the production location; be escorted by a trained greenhouse worker to ensure no crops are contaminated; give a full disclosure of prior work sites (e.g., livestock or other agriculture); and be provided with appropriate coverings or boots if they are noticeably dirty. Remember, they are not concerned with the food you are producing, but on fixing a specific problem. Therefore, special attention needs to be given to these individuals.

In addition to visitors and contractors, biosecurity policies should focus on mitigation of intentional acts to contaminate crops. It is recommended that all doors leading directly to the exterior should be locked or continuously monitored when unlocked. Minimizing the number of doors unlocked will reduce biosecurity concerns. If doors must be unlocked, having a person or way to continuously monitor the door is critical. In addition to access to the facilities, there needs to be a restriction on who has access to rooms or cabinets that have hazardous chemicals.

Ask yourself how easy it would be for someone to enter your greenhouse and place a harmful substance in your nutrient solution or production system. Workers should be trained to be aware of unknown people in the greenhouse and question their purpose. Like the facility security concerns, it is important not to allow all workers access to all chemicals and materials. Special training should be provided for any materials or chemicals that could cause harm to humans if consumed above recommended dosage.

Continue To Develop A Food Safety Program

Your first assignment for this article on best practices for workers and biosecurity measures is to evaluate the food safety training provided to your workers. If there is no formal food safety training program, consider developing one for your company.

Your second task is to evaluate your visitor policy for your operation. What guidelines do you and your employees follow with regards to visitors? What rules must visitors follow when in your operation? Remember, every action taken is another step toward a positive food safety culture.


Two Assignments For Growers To Begin Reducing Food Safety Risk

Evaluate your worker
training program
Is every worker in your facility trained?

Does your worker training program include food safety?
Evaluate your visitor policyDo visitors have to sign in/out?

Do you have rules that visitors must follow?

Do visitors have to disclose prior presence on
other farms/greenhouses?


For more on food safety:
Part One: Overview Of Best Food Safety Practices
Part Two: Soilless And Hydroponic Systems


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