A union claims workers at a Smith’s Chips factory in Adelaide have been experiencing breathing difficulties and skin irritation from a seasoning used on a spicy snack food.

Key points:

  • A union says workers exposed to spicy corn chip seasoning are experiencing health complaints
  • It has raised the matter with SA’s workplace safety regulator
  • The ABC has contacted PepsiCo, which owns Smith’s Chips, for comment

In a report sent to SafeWork SA, the United Workers Union (UWU) said employees had “raised significant safety concerns regarding the improper handling of strongly irritating substances” used to flavour Doritos ‘Flamin’ Hot’ corn chips.

The chips are marketed for their spiciness and sold in packets emblazoned with the words “ignite your tastebuds”.

In the report, which was published on SafeWork SA’s website, the union claimed about a dozen staff at the Smith’s Snackfood Company site at Regency Park, north of Adelaide, had reported adverse reactions.

“The [company] produces a hot snack product with ‘flaming hot seasoning’ every couple of weeks, the seasoning dispersing across the production area from the seasoning machine,” the report stated.

“After interviewing 13 workers from the afternoon shift, 11 reported various effects, including sneezing, coughing, eye and skin irritation, runny nose, sore throat, chest discomfort, and difficulty breathing.”

UWU organiser Jacky Chen said he had conducted an inspection at the site earlier this month, and more staff came forward to raise similar concerns.

The union said the company needed to provide a safe place for its workers.

In a statement PepsiCo, which owns Smith’s Chips, said the safety of its people was “top priority”.

“We follow a number of safety procedures and protocols when producing products that include spicy seasoning,” a PepsiCo spokesperson said.

“To further enhance these measures at our Adelaide site there is mandatory mask-wearing during production of this product and we are installing additional extraction fans.

“We are committed to working with our people and the union to address any further concerns.”

SafeWork SA ‘considering’ complaint

Mr Chen said many snack products were produced at the site, but “this is the worst one because they’re using really spicy seasonings”.

“When they produce this kind of product, the workers put some of the seasoning into the seasoning machine, and the seasoning ends up going through the whole factory,” he said.

“Workers reported to me they have coughing, sneezing, eye-burning, skin burns, and even some people tell me they [find it] hard to breathe, and also some people have told me they feel chest discomfort when they get home.”

He said the company had put a lid on the seasoning machine, but he believed it was “not really working properly”, and some workers were considering taking sick leave because the situation had become so “stressful”.

Mr Chen said he had not received any update from SafeWork SA since raising the matter. 

The ingredients listed on the packaging.(ABC News: Justin Hewitson)

In a statement, SafeWork SA said it was assessing the concerns raised by the union.

“SafeWork is currently considering the complaint lodged by the UWU earlier this month to determine whether further action is warranted,” it said.

“One previous complaint from the UWU lodged in January referred to a build-up of seasoning dust in the PC line, but contained no reference to adverse health effects.

“In response to this complaint, SafeWork inspectors attended the site to ensure adequate controls were in place to minimise any risk to employees.”

Mr Chen said while SafeWork SA had suggested workers wear masks, staff were reluctant to do that because of the temperature in the factory.