Fever screening at food processing plants

COVID-19 poses a substantial risk for food processing plants. The use of thermal cameras to screen staff and customers for fevers is one way of mitigating this risk.

Several large outbreaks have occurred in meat packing plants around the world including Victoria, Germany, and the US. Closer to home cold storage provider Americold was the work place for the spouse of NZ's index case of the August cluster.  At least 5 additional staff members and multiple family members were infected and the company was closed for weeks. Sadly, one of the staff members has since died.

Why are food processing plants susceptible? 

Masked Poultry workers

"Factories and, in particular, indoor areas which are cold and damp, are perfect environments for coronavirus to linger and spread," according to Lawrence Young, Professor of Molecular Oncology at the University of Warwick.

"Virus-containing droplets from infected individuals are more likely to spread, settle and stay viable."

It's also difficult to get physical separation, workers are breathing heavily when working hard and potentially yelling to be heard in noisy environments. All of this makes the transmission of COVID or any other airborne virus more likely.

 The cost includes lost staff from sick leave or potentially the much higher cost if the whole plant needs to shut down. On top of that there is the potential of damage to the organisation's reputation with customers and prospects.

How to mitigate the COVID threat?

One way to mitigate the COVID threat in food processing plants is to temperature check workers at the start of each shift and all visitors that come on site. Detecting people with high temperature finds those who may have contagious diseases such as COVID-19 and influenza, potentially before they know they’re infected. This prevents them from interacting with staff and spreading the disease. Note: Not everyone with COVID will develop a fever but those that do have a higher viral load and are more infectious.

Temperature checks can pick up people before they show symptoms

Many food processing places already have some sort of temperature checking on their staff and visitors. There are now reports of some Chinese customers requiring food producers that are exporting to them to temperature check all their staff and have an auditable record.

A cheap way of doing this is to have a hand held forehead thermometer. These are easy to use, but need an operator or stringent hand washing and wiping between uses. The person taking the temperature also needs to get very close to the person whose temperature they're taking. It is quite confronting having a thermometer stuck in your face.

Forehead thermometers are in your face

By contrast a thermal camera is easy to use and non invasive. You just stand in front of it. It's fast with the screening completed in seconds and can be un-manned with an operator only needed if the camera finds someone with a fever.

Because thermal cameras are faster, easier and more pleasant it should be easier to scan everyone. If you have a camera in an area where your staff visit multiple times a day - a bathroom or cafeteria for example then you  can scan them several times/day. This means you have potential to detect fevers in your staff if they develop during the day.

How do staff react to thermal cameras

From our experience staff are a little hesitant to start with. However they very quickly overcome any hesitancy when they see that it is fast and easy and they are almost always at a normal temperature. This very quickly shifts to reassurance. If they are mandated to be checked at the start of their shift we see people voluntarily scanning themselves when they walk past the camera. 

"Very positive feedback from staff RE having temps taken by the paramedic and now your machine. This gives reassurance" - Inspector Kieren Kortegast, Centre Manager, Southern Communications Centre, New Zealand Police

Thermal cameras pay for themselves in reduced sick leave

Even ignoring the risks of COVID, if a thermal camera can stop someone with the flu or another infectious disease from infecting your staff then it doesn't take too many saved staff sick days for the cameras to pay for themselves.

What is unique about the Te Kahu Ora thermal cameras?

The unique features of the Te Kahu Ora screening platform include:

Its local
  • The cameras are designed and manufactured in New Zealand
  • Backed by the NZ Government - through a MBIE COVID Innovation Acceleration Fund grant
  • NZ support by people who developed the camera.
  • Backed by a social enterprise: profits will benefit NZ native birds.
  • The camera has a thermal reference. This is a small box that sits in front of the camera and heats up to a known temperature. This provides increased accuracy (<0.3°) and reliability in a range of environments.
  • Output available on multiple screens – a receptionist can monitor if needed
  • Anonymised reporting (coming), with no personal data collected
  • Open source technology – no licence fees, source code available
  • Un-manned operation with alerts (coming)
  • Fast (1-2 seconds) and non-invasive
  • Active development of personal temperature profiles and research into techniques for estimating the body temperature of people exposed to the cold.

Boards of directors have a responsibility to look after the health and safety of their workers. A thermal camera is an easy way to help protect staff and the broader business from COVID. Note, it will not detect everyone with COVID because some people are asymptomatic, especially early on. Most people that it does find with a fever will have something else. However by keeping them away from your workplace and encouraging them to be tested you will be protect your staff and visitors, while helping the fight against COVID.

Find out more about the Te Kahu Ora fever screening camera.