Classroom training in food and workplace safety, despite its necessity, is not enough to produce the expected results. Experience shows that front-line workers continue to make mistakes, sometimes critical ones, even after classroom training and successful testing seemingly confirmed comprehension of the key learning objectives. The incorporation of knowledge gained from classroom training and consistent application of it in day-to-day operations is a commonly misunderstood facet of training. An employee who attends classroom lectures and scores well in examinations is presumed to comprehend the training’s subject matter. Yet if food safety protocols and procedures do not translate to appropriate employee behavior on the line, knowledge may fade just as quickly as it does for college students who cram for a final exam and inevitably forget most of what they studied within days after taking the test.
Companies generally acknowledge the need for follow-up or refresher training to remedy bad habits and inconsistent employee behaviors, but all too often they lack the time and/or resources to reconvene a classroom training session. Inability to measure or ensure the retention of food safety and quality knowledge exposes the food manufacturer or processor to potential major risks and failure to achieve compliance to the satisfaction of the FDA, USDA, or third-party auditors. The FDA’s own study corroborates the idea of ineffective training as a contributing factor to recent food recalls.
Many companies rely on front-line supervisors to ensure food safety programs are followed and to correct non-compliances, even though they may lack supervisory training and adequate tools. These responsibilities along with refresher training “on the fly” require more documentation and a greater time commitment than some supervisors are afforded or skilled to deliver. For effective management, supervisors are expected to document and track employee mistakes in each worker’s personnel file. Unfortunately competing responsibilities to assure production goals are met tend to take priority over refresher training. In this typical scenario, what is lost is the ability to coach employee behaviors that consistently keeps the focus on safe practices. In fact, overlooking the importance of behavioral change through coaching is to ignore a leading indicator of food safety and quality compliance.
The Impact of Behavior
Focusing on behavior in the workplace is nothing new. Behavioral theorists as well as progressive supervisors and executives have long understood that behavior has a powerful impact on accomplishment and goal achievement. The role of behavior has certainly not escaped the scrutiny of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which often assesses it in agency audits. One does not need a plethora of statistics to prove that a motivated and engaged workforce is more likely to dedicate itself to successful outcomes than employees who are disengaged and feel no sense of teamwork or commitment. Employees’ lack of motivation stems from a variety of factors common to the food processing and manufacturing industry: ineffective or lack of training, supervision and support, challenging work conditions, and complex and changing job responsibilities.
The goal has always been to influence behavior on a daily basis so that food safety, workplace safety, and compliance are in the forefront of everyone’s priorities on the plant floor. Annual refresher training is simply inadequate to insure a robust organizational culture. An employee’s high examinations score will not guarantee application of the same concepts months later. Without a routine focus on food safety, employees may not recognize the importance of their role or the depth of their accountability in achieving safety and compliance. Behavior has to be routinely observed, corrected when needed, and validated.
Attorney Shawn Stevens, who has represented some of the largest food producers in the U.S., understands the importance of behavior and worker attitudes. “When there is an absence in the culture to continuously motivate employees to do better, it is called complacency, and with it comes risk,” Stevens says. “There has to be a commitment to supporting employee programs that highlight the importance of food safety.” Further, Stevens believes there can be no excuse for failing to conduct recurrent training to keep employee behavior focused. “When it comes to food safety, it has to be continuous,” he says. “There should never be anything like a bare minimum—it is unacceptable.”