We are becoming familiar with stories of staffing shortages in the food and drinks industry; tales of restaurants shutting because they have no food or of local stores with empty shelves are becoming commonplace and there are even rumours of an impending Christmas turkey shortage. But if we were to view this as a short-term issue, capable of simple resolution, then we would be mistaken. The current staffing crisis could have health & safety repercussions across the industry for some time to come. We look at the key health & safety challenges the industry is likely to face.


Understaffing not only makes it difficult for businesses to meet performance and production targets, it can also impede effective health and safety management

When there is not a full complement of staff, workers often look for shortcuts to ensure that production levels are not affected. This can mean that health and safety controls are circumvented. For example, staff ignore 2 man lifting rules or the need to use banksmen in warehouses. In addition, proper maintenance of equipment may take a back seat where staff do not have time to carry out regular checks and testing.

Cutting corners in these ways increases the risk of accidents and injuries in the workplace. The consequences of these failures might not always be felt immediately and a failure to address poor practices now can lead to them becoming accepted and ingrained in a business' operating culture. Although it can be difficult when resources are under pressure, resisting the temptation to lower health & safety standards now, will protect the business from more problems further down the line.

Overworking/ excessive hours

With fewer staff to meet targets, staff may be required to work longer hours or take on more overtime to ensure that production levels do not drop.

To combat the shortage of HGV drivers and the impact on the supply chain, the number of legal driving hours for HGV drivers has been extended. This will assist in the short-term, but concerns have been raised about the increased risk of road traffic accidents. Other strategies to increase working hours, such as incentives for working overtime, are being employed elsewhere in the industry. This is understandable but businesses should remain wary of the risks which accompany increased working hours. This is particularly apparent in business premises where staff are required to operate heavy machinery and where the potential for accidents and injuries caused by human fatigue is high.

Alongside the increased risk of accidents and injuries, there can be an impact on more general wellbeing where understaffing and overworking become a chronic problem, with studies showing links between overworking and increased risk of physical illnesses such as heart disease and stroke. The impact of long hours on mental health is also well recognised. The mental and physical wellbeing of employees is of vital importance to businesses and a failure to protect staff now can have a significant impact in the future.

An important first step for businesses is to include the risk of harm to mental health in risk assessments, so that working practices are designed to protect employees from these issues. Recognising the impact of fatigue on the risk of accidents, health and productivity should also help businesses to take sustainable decisions during this difficult time.

New and inexperienced staff

Where businesses experience staffing shortages, the obvious solution is to hire new staff. However, recruitment brings its own risks and challenges. New staff are likely to be inexperienced or unfamiliar with the business and, at the same time, businesses have less resource for effective training and supervision. Without effective training, staff do not have the necessary tools to fully implement risk reducing measures and without robust supervision there is no way to ensure that those measures are being followed. A lack of training now could lead to health & safety failures in the longer term.

Again, although it can feel tempting to lower standards or resource for training and supervision, the future cost of doing so could well outweigh the immediate benefit. Although it may be difficult, it is important that new staff are managed effectively, even if that means costs in terms of productivity in the immediate term.

Long term impacts?

Where health and safety protocols are not enforced, machinery is not maintained, and regular training is not kept up to date, the effects will continue beyond this acute crisis. The longer that the health and safety challenges caused by the staffing shortage are left unchecked, the more difficult it will be for businesses to take steps to rectify their impact.

What should you take away from this?

Your business' health and safety compliance is essential to ensure the health of both your workforce and business itself. Playing catch up when it comes to health and safety is not good for any business, and so it is important that you take proactive steps in the short term to protect the future. This could include:

  • Reviewing your health and safety policy to ensure that the increased risks posed by any ongoing staffing shortages have been identified;
  • Making sure you have a robust policy in place to remove or manage any identified risks. Although this will be challenging, doing so now should put businesses on the best foot for the future;
  • Keeping health and safety compliance on the agenda and recognising the vital role it plays in the successful future of your business.

The health & safety team at Brodies have extensive experience of advising and supporting those in the food & drink sector. Please contact a member of our team to find out how we could help you.


Kate Donachie

Legal Director