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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, October/November 2007

Safety at Your Fingertips

By making training more interactive and inclusive, you can ensure your company and workers avoid unsafe food handling practices

by Stephenie Overman

The food service industry has been hit hard by foodborne illness outbreaks such as E. coli in spinach and hygiene mishaps that threaten customers’ health and company reputations. The solution to many of these food-handling problems is at employees’ fingertips.

A 2006 FDA report, “Reducing Foodborne Illness Risk Factors in Food Service and Retail Establishments,” found continued problems with the basics—improper hand washing, poor personal hygiene, improper holding time, and improper temperatures.

And a recent study of food workers by the Environmental Health Specialists Network (EHS-Net) found that unsafe food-handling practices are common. Many employees surveyed said they did not always wear gloves while touching ready-to-eat (RTE) food (60%), did not always wash their hands (23%), did not change their gloves between handling raw meat and RTE food (33%), and did not use a thermometer to check food temperatures (53%). But a June 2007 American Society for Quality report found that overall food safety in the United States is getting better, not worse.

Lack of Tools, Training

“People do not come into work in the morning saying, ‘I want to do a bad job,’” says Gary Ades, consultant and principal of G & L Consulting Group in Bentonville, Ark., and a member of the Food Quality editorial advisory board. “They just don’t have the tools and the training.”

Too often, employers think of training as going through a list of rules, Ades says. “You can’t teach rules. You want employees, typically young people who may have English as a second language, to remember 150 rules? That’s where we fail. You need to tell them the whys so that they have a better understanding and can help you figure out how to do it properly.”

Training should be customized, with the right teacher and the right materials, says Gordon Meriwether, principal and founder of The Uriah Group in Falls Church, Va. “What’s right for processors may not be right for retailers. One size does not fit all.”

“Make it relevant. With today’s large immigrant cultures, you often have to teach people who don’t read or write in their own language, let alone in English,” Meriwether says. “One solution is to use a more visual approach such as television, cartoons, and other graphics.”

Make it Interactive

Another solution is to make learning more interactive, suggests Jeff Nelken, a food safety consultant based in Woodland Hills, Calif. “You need more games, videos. People like teams. Put posters up and go through the posters and ask people what makes each one effective. Help them make their own posters. Do show and tell with a black light. You have to vary your techniques,” Nelken says.

“The way not to do it is have a sticker on the towel machine that says ‘Lave las manos.’ There has to be more,” adds Bob Nelson, president of Nelson Motivation, Inc. in San Diego and author of 1000 Ways to Reward Employees.

Nelson stresses working on changing behavior, adding that it boils down to a simple three-step process. “First, describe what you’re doing as you exhibit the [appropriate] behavior. Second, have the other person do the behavior as you describe what should be done. Third, have the person doing the behavior explain what he’s doing.”

The training process begins when you have your first encounter with a job candidate, says Nelken. “Let the person know food safety is a priority, that you want them to embrace that value. In the interviewing process, have a case study where somebody is doing something dangerous and discuss why it is a problem and how it could be prevented.” And once the individual is hired, teach food safety before talking about other job responsibilities, Nelken adds.

It is also important to point out that progress is incremental and training is never over. “When you go back after nine months, they’ve forgotten,” Nelken says. “You have to inject a culture of food safety so that it is not just a ‘flavor of the month’ program. You need a sincere commitment, an enduring relationship, as opposed to a one-night stand.”

Measurements, Not Wishes

Trainers and companies need to set real training goals and then measure them; “otherwise, you’re just dealing with hopes and wishes,” Nelson says. He recommends measuring a particular food safety-related behavior of a randomly chosen 10% of workers to establish a baseline, then tracking all employees’ behavior and conducting spot checks to determine what progress is being made. “Reinforce and follow up. Stake out a goal and keep measuring. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” adds Nelson.

Jim Mann, executive director and chief scientific officer of the Handwashing for Life Institute, has developed measurement tools for hand washing (see article on pg. 42). A good way to start measuring, Mann says, is to have counters in soap dispensers. “To measure the quality of hand washing, have employees put their hands under a black light to check for trace elements. Have them wash their hands, and then use the black light again to show where they missed. They’ll say, ‘Oh, I see, under my ring’ or ‘my long fingernails.’”

What’s normally just a splash and dash, Mann says, can be corrected by showing them the right procedure, checking once more, and continuing to monitor with the black light. Also, Mann suggests getting employees to talk in small groups about when hands need to be washed. “Don’t accuse them of not washing. Help them come up with a list they can agree on” so that they will have ownership of that list and will be committed to its implementation, he adds.

Reward Proper Behavior

Proper food handling behavior should be rewarded, Nelson says, perhaps with bonuses. “You could say that one of the criteria for a bonus is hand washing at the accepted standard.” But, “I think the more powerful way is to reward with things that don’t involve money. People want and need feedback. Information [about improvements] itself is a form of recognition. You want people to go for a percentage that is better than the baseline. But if you don’t keep score, employees can’t have fun.”

Nelken believes that team behavior should be rewarded. “Sometimes [an individual reward] backfires. Several other people may feel they’ve done the same thing, but they didn’t receive a reward. I recommend recognizing the unit.”

Meriwether echoes this idea. “Build-ing your team around food safety is the only way to do it. Build a team where they all understand the ramifications. Start with good leadership, follow with communication, and have solid operations that employees can work with. It takes concerted effort by management. It’s more than ‘we’re going to build a team, let’s have a barbeque.’” But the effort is worth it because “your employees are the keepers of your brand.”

Clyde’s Team

Clyde’s Restaurant Group, in the Washington, D.C. area, also uses teamwork—and team competitions—to promote food safety training. An annual hand washing contest among teams from the company’s 11 restaurants is organized each September—Food Safety Education Month— and focuses on the basics and timing of good hand washing and food safety knowledge.

The competition includes cooks, busboys, wait staff, and hostesses, says Victoria Decker Griffith, director of quality, who created the program about seven years ago. “There are 25 food safety questions, such as the reportable symptoms of illness and correct cooking temperatures. We challenge them to know it all. We randomly draw questions out of a hat,” she says. “We have a 95%-plus correct answer response.”

In addition to the annual competition, Clyde’s has “safety ambassadors,” employees who volunteer to promote food, employee, and customer safety. One thing the ambassadors do is to get employees to sign their names to safety posters to show they’ve learned the material on the posters. “As soon as we had safety ambassadors collect signatures from the staff, they paid attention,” Griffith says, and safety infractions “took a double-digit decline.” Clyde’s compensates these ambassadors and pays taxes on that extra compensation as well.

Griffith believes employees are motivated by a natural instinct to do the right thing. But food safety is also a consideration when the time comes to do performance appraisals for hourly employees. “It’s all tied together. You can’t reward for just one thing, but it encourages them to put all the balls in the air and include food safety and management in that,” adds Griffith.

And then there are the prizes: The winning team in the hand washing competition receives $1,200, while the runner-up team receives $400. Other participants each receive $25. “The winners usually have the money spent already,” she says. “Last year’s team was a second-time winner, which took it seriously and won two years in a row. Most were waitresses who took time after work to study.”

Clyde’s knows that training employees to handle food properly is a never-ending process. It’s not train people and then you’re done. It’s like a language: If you don’t speak it, you won’t remember it.

Overman is a freelance food industry writer based in Arlington, Va. Reach her at (703) 465-8605 or



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