By Ole Dosland

Equipment breakdowns seem to happen at the worst of times, usually delaying customer orders. This may be due to equipment that is not built to last or poor sanitary design/installation issues. Although breakdowns are not planned, they can be prevented. When they do occur, there is a rush to be back in production quickly, sometimes with temporary repairs. But without downtime, cleaning of food-contact surfaces is just not possible and creates a higher risk.

What is a practical solution? Scheduled downtime, strategically, for planned preventive maintenance and sanitation is an excellent solution.

Such scheduled downtime is often perceived as a loss of profit: No production, no profit. But in actuality, fewer breakdowns are a means to a more efficient operation, and scheduled downtime for sanitation provides a “clean break.” A clean break is a program which assures microbial contamination cannot overlap from one production run to another. A clean break provides an opportunity to create a separate lot not associated with the previous production. If a recall circumstance develops, the product quantity of the recall can be minimized with a clean-break program. Thus, scheduling downtime for preventive maintenance and resource planning is a means to better efficiency, and the same can be said of sanitation. Experience and science can be an excellent basis for the maintenance and master sanitation schedules. Additionally, many of the tasks and activities can be accomplished during the same scheduled downtime.

SCHEDULED FREQUENCY. How often should downtime be scheduled? The frequency will depend on the type of operation. Scheduled downtime for high-moisture foods may be daily, such as a nightly cleaning program. Scheduled downtime for low-moisture foods may be weekly or bi-weekly with an entire work shift (eight hours) planned.

Downtime also can be scheduled for a production line rotation or an entire production area. The time might vary from four hours to 12 hours depending on the scope of repair or cleaning. Cancelling scheduled downtime will likely cause equipment failure longer than the original schedule and create a higher food-safety risk. Provide some planned downtime at a desired frequency and length for your operation dedicated to completing work tasks from the preventive maintenance and master sanitation schedules. Each task should have an estimated time for completion following standard operating procedures (SOP). Maintenance and sanitation work should be completed having an acceptable SOP endpoint. Finishing the downtime ahead of schedule is welcomed while delays are not.

There are times when the sanitation crew will need maintenance help to disassemble equipment for deep cleaning. Other times, maintenance will need sanitation’s help to clean specific equipment following a repair, especially in Zone 1. These two departments should be working together during the same scheduled downtime to maximize efficiency, efforts, and effectiveness.

ADDING VALUE TO DOWNTIME. Scheduled downtime provides an opportunity for other key activities, such as inventory and pest management. Although inventory activities vary by company, a periodic on-the-floor evaluation of inventory is necessary to assure an adequate supply of whatever is available, without excessive over or under supply. This is an excellent time to check for potential outdated materials. A QA policy should be in place to not ship product by a designated amount of time before the “use-by” date, assuring shelf-life standards.

Integrated pest management (IPM) personnel utilize downtime to find and eliminate hidden pest sources. Some sources can be challenging and easier to find during downtime, and you must eliminate the source to eliminate the problem. Pest management companies also can provide a wide array of intensive control options during a vacant time following downtime activities.

VERIFICATION AND VALIDATION. Verification and validation during scheduled downtime is critical to food safety and other operation disciplines. There is much activity during this downtime. Procedures should be verified to ensure proper completion of assignments, and they should be documented. In addition, work tasks in Zone 1 and others should be validated (through microbial assessment) to assure effectiveness of the work, and documented. Pre-operation procedures should be used. Don’t assume all is in order for startup following preventive maintenance, deep cleaning, inventory control, and pest control activities. Plan some time for pre-op following any downtime.

Scheduled downtime during specific work shifts has some advantages. Not everyone has the ability and experience to work during “out of the normal” downtime. In addition to preventive maintenance and cleaning activities, special work crews can conduct other activities, such as building renovation or internal bin/silo cleaning. Planning downtime for the same work crew helps identify the unusual in what they may see, smell, and feel. Furthermore, the startup shift will become more experienced and efficient with pre-op procedures.

SUMMARY. Equipment breakdowns and sanitation issues can delay customer orders causing unforeseen problems. Metal fragments, plastic pieces, and other foreign material are frequent causes of recalls. These problems can ruin your day or that of your boss and boss’ boss. The strategic use of preventive scheduled downtime leads to a safer, more reliable, more efficient operation while lowering food-safety risks. If scheduled downtime is missed, be prepared to accept a higher risk.

Ole Dosland is QA & Food Safety Consultant and Trainer, DOZ Enterprises.