In The Safe Zone

When companies assess competitive advantages, they tend to look at their position in the marketplace versus the competition, a product or service that presumably offers greater quality and reliability, capacity for growth and, of course, a cost-effective operation. Yet one item that never seems to enter the long list of positives is employee training.

Perhaps it is because most companies presume a competent workforce is a “given.” On the other hand, food processing and manufacturing companies may be reticent to call any attention to the quality of training given the publicity surrounding product recalls or outbreaks of listeria or salmonella that can be tied to employee mishandling.

Yet in a 2006 study published by Food Protection Trends on the rankings of safety problems across all food sectors, 94 percent of study respondents identified “deficient employee training” as the biggest safety issue. Six years later, there is little evidence that this problem has been completely rectified given the number of non-compliances issued by auditors due to training shortcomings in the industry. If effective training is the primary component of a food safety culture, then why doesn’t management leverage it?

The Costs of Training Failures

A cost-effective operation is a competitive advantage. The impact on the company’s bottom line when a recall or a disease is traced to improper food handling by employees is not. Attorney Shawn Stevens, whose Milwaukee law firm litigates food safety cases, says companies fail to realize the incredible costs that follow an outbreak or recall due to an insufficiently trained workforce. He estimates companies on the receiving end can expect budget-devastating payouts like these to defend their brands and their reputations:

  • $250,000 to $2 million – for crisis management consultants and associated legal costs
  • $250,000 to $2.5 million – for notification, retrieval and destruction of returned products
  • $250,000 to $6 million – for replacement costs to a company’s commercial customers
  • $250,000 to $2.5 million – for additional post-recall claims issues
  • $500,000 to $10 million – for future lost profits from terminated commercial contracts.

Stevens estimates that the total costs associated with product recalls can run from $1.5 million to $23 million – and that’s only for pre-litigation. What an incredible price to pay for training failures that could easily have been avoided had a thorough and documentable training program and process been put into place.

One of the major reasons for training deficiencies is that many companies follow a policy of “one and done.” In other words, the employee receives training in a particular food safety topic one time, may or may not be adequately tested, and is presumed to fully understand the concept simply because a signature attests to it. That’s simply not enough. The flaw is evident in the assumption of comprehension – always a concern, particularly in the food industry where English may be a second language for many employees.

Another area where training falls short is confusion by employees who misinterpret production goals as more important than food safety procedures due to constant emphasis on operational expectations by supervisors. An auditor for a global firm reported an unsettling example at a U.S. food processing plant where coated bulbs were no longer in use despite a company policy mandating them. When questioning the maintenance manager, the auditor confirmed that glass shards could be found throughout the receiving dock – including on product cases after a standard bulb had been shattered by a forklift. The auditor asked why the company’s policy had not been followed. “They told us to cut our budget by 15 percent, so no more coated bulbs,” the maintenance manager replied.

A properly trained employee and/or supervisor would have readily recognized the danger to health and food safety and reacted accordingly. The company was found in non-compliance, but the auditor might have saved the firm from a far worse fate that would have rendered its competitive advantages meaningless and damaged its brand reputation.

Training is Imperative

This year, FDA will issue preventive controls in line with the Food Safety Modernization Act, and it’s conceivable that one of those controls will center on training. FDA has recognized that comprehensive training is imperative if companies hope to make employees aware of the potential safety and health consequences of negative behaviors on the plant floor. In addition, the agency has authorized its inspectors to look more closely at results of the training process and establish whether employees fully understand the concepts and actually implement them on the job.

Many companies, well aware of the increasing scrutiny, have become proactive by upgrading their training through investment in newer technologies that enable thorough documentation of all training, testing and proof of comprehension. Just as important, the technology, designed to be user-friendly even for those with limited understanding of English, immediately identifies erroneous testing responses and launches into a corrective remediation process.

A Texas Work­force Comm­ission study on the technology’s impact produced statistics that showed considerable improvements in safety – and to the bottom line. Among its findings: a 21 percent decrease in reportable food safety incidents, a 14 percent decrease in worker injuries, a 24 percent increase in worker productivity and 13 percent increase in operating margins. These figures are bound to be appreciated by quality assurance, safety officers, human resources and chief financial officers.

Since the issuance of that report in 2006, technology’s training capabilities have greatly expanded. That explains its rapid ascension as the preferred tool for effective and comprehensive training designed to positively influence day-to-day employee behavior. Those influences that reduce quality issues, satisfy customer needs, protect em­ployee and public safety, and solidify a company’s brand are the results of a training process that has produced a committed workforce—a competitive advantage by everyone’s standards.

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