Combining food, the workplace, and safety into one career

Why health and safety leaders shouldn’t overlook food-related hazards

Combining food, the workplace, and safety into one career
Mike Byerley

Mike Byerley has spent a lifetime focusing on safety, and he recalls a moment midway through his career when his boss asked him to add food safety to his occupational health and safety duties. “I said I really don't know food safety that well. I said I'm a health and safety expert, he said safety is safety, just do the blink blink job.” And that’s exactly what Byerley did for the Compass Group, which is a food and support services company.

Elements of health and safety are scribbled all over the path leading up to that moment. Byerley was an air force medic who put those skills to work as an emergency services first responder riding in ambulances in London, Ontario during the 1980’s. He eventually became a regional director in ambulatory services, but then came an opportunity to join the health and safety committee, which required additional training. That set him on a new course.

“It sort of piqued my interest,” says Byerley, “and I'm talking to my wife when I said it might be kind of nice to get out of pickup and recovery and get into prevention.” He spent the early 90s taking courses at Fanshawe College while working in ambulatory services, and in 1995 a friend helped him land an interview with Scott’s Restaurants, which at the time owned many of the restaurants along the highways in Canada, including several Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises.

Byerley says within a week his friend set up the interview with the company’s human resources vice president. He met with her on a Thursday morning, got the offer Thursday night, and was asked to start the new job on Monday. “I went from ambulance and emergency care to health and safety in a period of three days.”

From that moment, Byerley’s career would be full of food safety issues while at the same time tackling occupational health and safety challenges. He joined the Compass Group towards the end of the 90s and that’s when food became his primary focus. “A lot of my training in the health and safety field allowed me to use that in helping start food safety at Compass Group,” says Byerley, who would eventually be part of the team that created the North American Food Safety program. 

Now retired, Byerley works part-time as a consultant and says many health and safety leaders often overlook the risks food poses in the workplace. He points to knives as one common hazard, saying: "They have to be cleaned properly to keep them safe and not cross contaminate, but you have to do it in a safe manner, you don't throw them in the bottom of the soapy sink, and then reach in looking for them and cut yourself.”

There’s also that sandwich that’s been sitting in the office fridge for way too long, but somehow doesn’t end up in the garbage and is eaten by that guy that eats everything (every office has that guy) which Byerley says is a problem, “because now they're missing work because they're sick.”

The intersection between food and occupational health and safety couldn’t be more pronounced than it is in the restaurant industry. Byerley says one duty always includes both sides of the same coin, which is unloading the trucks.

Heavy boxes are being moved from trucks to freezers and it needs to happen quickly, but also needs to be performed with proper lifting techniques “because I couldn't begin to tell you how many times I've seen or heard of people that got injured on the job in restaurants, because they weren't paying attention,” says Byerley. "Restaurants tend to focus on food safety, and they need to do more focused on health and safety.”

And health and safety leaders could probably pay more attention to the food risks that surround them and their workers.