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Protecting Food Flavoring Workers from Respiratory Illnesses

A large number of the foods we eat on a daily basis contain artificial flavors. You're probably aware that the grape bubble gum and cherry soda you come across at the grocery store aren't made from actual fruit. Rather, they are infused with man-made taste signatures that are supposed to represent their respective flavors. While it may not be surprising to hear that junk food items don't exactly qualify as "all natural" products, even many traditional dietary staples include synthetic flavorings and ingredients.  

Unfortunately for the workers who produce these taste signatures, creating food flavoring is not as delightful a job as it may sound. In fact, it can actually be hazardous to your health. The processes used in combining natural and man-made ingredients can be dangerous for factory workers who are constantly exposed to harmful dusts, vapors and sprays. Chemicals used during the process can cause serious respiratory illnesses. Fortunately, there are preventative steps that both employers and employees can take to maintain a safe working environment.

Flavorings: Dangerous to Workers

Generally, flavorings are complex mixtures of natural ingredients and chemicals designed to enhance the taste of food. These chemicals often appear on the ingredient lists of food packages. They are typically the long, complicated words that are hard to pronounce, such as benzaldehyde (bitter almond flavor), limonene (orange flavor) and Ethylvanillin (vanilla flavor). Although consumption of these chemicals in moderation does not present a threat, inhalation can be extremely dangerous.

Flavoring factories have large containers of these dangerous chemicals that are used in the production process. Therefore, even diligent workers who are conscious of safety concerns still have a moderate chance of being exposed. Many of these chemicals can have a harmful effect on the respiratory system if you inhale them in high enough concentrations.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted an investigation to determine if the employees of a microwave popcorn packaging plant had significant health problems. NIOSH found that there was a connection between the presence of chemical vapors from food flavorings and decreased lung function among the factory workers. This decreased lung function could contribute to serious lung disease because the chemicals could obstruct one's airways and make breathing difficult.

Health Complications

Respiratory illnesses are relatively common among food flavoring production workers. This is a serious concern as it may be evidence of long-term exposure to dangerous substances. The most common symptoms are coughing and shortness of breath on exertion. NIOSH found that affected workers generally notice a reduction of coughing after they are no longer exposed to flavoring chemicals. However, the shortness of breath on exertion often persists and may be chronic.

Workers' Steps to Protect Their Health

Unfortunately, it is often hard to ascertain which chemicals are causing lung problems when inhaled. As a result, NIOSH advises workers to handle every chemical with great care. Below are some useful tips for workers to better protect themselves from inhaling toxic chemicals:

  • Be knowledgeable about utilizing control devices and production practices to prevent the release of flavoring chemicals into the air around you.
  • Carefully read and understand the labels and instructions on the containers of flavorings and ingredients.
  • Ask your employer for training on the hazards associated with flavorings.
  • In order to prevent the chemicals from getting into the air, keep the containers of flavorings and ingredients tightly closed when they are not in use.
  • Wear any personal protective equipment that the employer may provide such as gloves, goggles, and a respirator (protective breathing mask).
  • If you experience coughing, shortness of breath, or any issues with your throat, nose, skin or eyes, report the issues to your doctor and employer immediately.

Flavoring Companies' Steps to Provide a Safe Working Environment

NIOSH recommends that employers of flavoring production facilities take these steps to protect their employees' health:

  • Provide employees with personal protection equipment such as goggles, gloves, and masks, especially if they are at risk of exposure to hazardous chemicals.
  • Provide respiratory evaluation such as breathing tests (spirometry) to all workers on a regular basis, especially those who are at risk of exposure to chemicals. Refer them to a doctor if they need medical attention.
  • Evaluate any patterns of reported issues of exposure and work to resolve those issues to prevent further exposure.
  • Limit hazardous exposure by using an effective ventilation system in the factory areas where flavorings are handled.
  • Separate the handling and mixing of dangerous chemicals. Take the chemicals to a separate area in order to mix.
  • Where possible, consider using a substitute chemical that is less dangerous.
  • Establish safety protocols to limit the release of any chemical vapors and dust into the work area.
  • Post warnings of hazardous chemicals, providing appropriate labeling and instructions.


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