Food manufacturers face several challenges when it comes to training their frontline workforces. Inherent struggles include heavy turnover, a dearth of skilled workers, high production quotas, tight timelines, and maintaining consistent behavior across all lines, shifts, and locations. Add federal regulations and compliance rules to the list, and training employees well enough to routinely apply correct behavior on the floor becomes a bigger challenge.
However, even the most complex problems can be overcome with the right tools and an open mindset. Training shouldn’t be designed as “one and done.” Effective training is continuous. Studies show an integrated training solution that combines interactive training, continuous reinforcement, and one-on-one coaching can elevate food safety training—while resulting in a lift in production and efficiency on the food production floor at the same time.
Conducted by Alchemy Systems and its research partners, the Global Food Safety Training Survey is an annual survey and comprehensive industry benchmarking tool that determines the efficacy of food safety training programs across the globe. More than 1,400 food safety professionals in more than 20 food industry sectors participate in the survey to determine best practices for overcoming common industry challenges. Some significant issues uncovered by last year’s study were scheduling time for training, keeping the message to employees consistent, creating engaging training, and verifying training for compliance—and these pertained to companies of all sizes. When examining solutions, it was clear that incorporating technology and innovative tools on the floor went a long way toward overcoming training challenges and building a culture of food safety.
Challenge #1: Scheduling Time for Food Safety Training
It should come as no surprise that finding time for training has been the No. 1 challenge identified each year in the Global Food Safety Training Survey. High quotas and tight schedules often leave safety managers and floor supervisors competing for employees’ time.
The most effective onboarding programs are short and engaging, relatable, and include knowledge checks at every step to assess comprehension. However, according to a phenomenon called the “forgetting curve,” even the most compelling onboarding training can be forgotten—up to 80 percent—if that training isn’t continuously reinforced. Building quick three- to five-minute “refreshers” into daily operations that complement training can reinforce and keep material fresh.
It can be difficult to squeeze in refreshers amid busy schedules. Luckily, the research is in our favor. Studies show the most effective refresher training is short and interactive. Rather than hour-long sessions, five-minute sessions punctuated with questions that prompt understanding and retention are more effective. Adult learning experts agree on the importance of recognizing a tenured employee’s level of knowledge by using brief refreshers as opposed to sitting through the same training as a new employee year after year. These short learning “bursts” take less time and fewer resources, so production can remain humming while employees learn and re-learn on the job. Strategically placing communications tools in high-traffic areas, like posters and video, also helps employees internalize concepts through repetition without taking time off the floor.
A mobile coaching app designed for the food production floor is another way to save time training. When frontline workers receive one-on-one coaching, they’re able to ask questions that create an invaluable dialogue and help them apply safety on the floor. A mobile coaching app conducts formal observations and corrective actions, as well as automatically records and stores observation and remediation data for future audits—which is a must for compliance. Many companies have seen success using such a tool designed for food manufacturing.
“Our mobile coaching app has helped us improve the performance of our workers by allowing us not only to provide the initial training, but to go out onto the floors any time of day, any shift, and verify that the learning that they achieved in the classroom has been sustained and continues,” says Robert Munoz, learning and development training manager at JBS.
Challenge #2: Ensuring Consistent Messaging
A significant challenge to consistency in many companies is having dozens or hundreds of supervisors, each with their own way of doing things. Not all leaders possess the same strengths, and some supervisors may be less experienced or engaging. Ensuring messaging is strong and consistent, regardless of who’s in charge, is imperative for keeping operations firing on all cylinders.
The right training tools can drive consistency. One way to ensure messaging stays consistent is to create learning plans for employees based on department or role. Learning plans function like playlists and allow training leaders to “plug and play,” empowering employees to take ownership over their own training. When employees all receive the same training, messaging stays consistent.
Shift huddle guides can also help drive consistency among supervisors by keeping everyone on the same page, literally. Not only do the effective communications make relaying messaging easier, it also saves supervisors time by eliminating the need to reinvent the wheel each shift.
“It helps me sleep peacefully at night because whether it’s my third shift, my second shift, or my day shift, I know that if training is happening, they’re watching that same courseware. They’re watching that same video, and it is going to be communicated across all shifts, all departments. It doesn’t matter who the facilitator is…it is going to be the same message across the board,” says James Hatch, operations training supervisor at Idahoan Foods, a potato production company.
Consistency post-FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act) is also crucial amid evolving regulations. Implementing company-wide communications, like eye-catching posters and looping digital videos in break rooms, can engage employees throughout the day, reinforce compliance, and keep operations consistent.
“Since we’ve launched the communication program, consisting of monthly topics that are reinforced with visuals throughout the facility, people are thinking about these topics more often,” says Amanda Moss, HR manager at Chudleigh’s, a commercial bakery. “The coordinated posters, the digital videos, the huddle guides, along with the training that we do monthly, really reinforces the topics that we cover, and again, drives that safety culture throughout the organization.”
Challenge #3: Make Food Safety Training Compelling and Memorable
It’s difficult to jazz up food safety and operations training. One way to cut through training white noise is to examine the different ways your food safety training is delivered. Long gone are the days of thick training manuals and boring hours-long videos. Today’s workers learn best when training material is delivered quickly and to the point, mimicking the visual and digital ways in which they experience the world.
Food safety training that moves beyond generic training material and imagery (i.e., stock photography in office-centric settings) is necessary to make an impact. Interactive training courseware that pauses to test learners’ knowledge and requires participation and feedback has proven more effective than the old-school ways of training. When learners’ attention spans are short and distractions are many, quick, succinct training courses make an impact.
The Global Food Safety Training Survey reports that 76 percent of food companies that responded still rely on reading materials and on-the-job instruction to deliver training. But for many frontline workers, reading complex safety procedures and standard operating procedures can be difficult.
More effective means of communication that encourage interaction can keep workers engaged and paying close attention. Research also shows when workers recognize themselves or their work environments in training materials, they’re more likely to remember what they have learned.
“When we customize the programs, it takes it out of a generalization and puts it in a real-time format for the employees so that they can recognize the different scenarios to help them better perform their positions,” says Cindy Fedde, training coordinator at Dorada Foods, a large poultry processor.
Workers tend to glaze over generic content when it doesn’t resonate, failing to commit important concepts to long-term memory. Incorporating food production-specific imagery and video from your workplace, even featuring your employees, can be an effective training method, which then translates into correct action on the floor. Advance course authoring software makes this easy to do with little to no technical background.
Challenge #4: Verifying Training Occurred and Was Understood
Here’s the deal with food safety training: Just because it happened doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. It’s one thing to get all employees onboarded, but documenting that training occurred—and was understood—presents a new set of challenges entirely. Tracking training manually can be time-consuming and invites inaccuracies. Yet, according to the Global Food Safety Training Survey, 66 percent of the food companies that responded say they still use paper-based documentation to track training, and more than half use Excel.
Furthermore, tracking training occurrence doesn’t account for verifying comprehension. “Active learning” that requires learners to participate and answer questions not only increases engagement, but a modern learning management system can also document those answers. An automated recordkeeping system can also track when remediation was necessary, that it occurred, and that the employee followed through with correct behavior on the floor.
When it comes to audits and inspections, this defensible data is critical. Having a central learning management system that can scale across multiple shifts and locations is the most effective way to ensure food safety across your entire operations.
“When an auditor comes and asks for a specific training document, I’m able to pull that record digitally within a matter of minutes. I have documentation for hundreds of employees, and I can provide that to auditors in a snap of a finger,” says Tony Salazar, training manager at Ventura Foods, a leading food manufacturer that uses an automated recordkeeping system.
Yet 35 percent of large companies still don’t have such a system in place, and as many as 80 percent of small companies don’t. As compliance regulations continue to tighten, airtight data management will become more crucial than ever. A learning management system that can sync up records on or offline will be necessary for many production environments.
Food companies that are willing to incorporate new methods of training, including a central learning management system that can deliver timely, consistent training and document data for compliance, mobile coaching tools, and meaningful communications, will be the companies that can transcend the current challenges to create a strong frontline workforce. And since the success of any food company is directly tied to the knowledge, skill, and strength of their workforce, these relatively modest investments in training tend to pay remarkable dividends.
Dunn Nelson is vice president of food safety and global alliances at Alchemy Systems. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.