Safety at Your Fingertips: Tips to Ensure Workers Avoid Unsafe Food-handling Practices

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.

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