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Go Beyond The Protocol With Your Team - Train, Test And Talk

Updated: Sep 28, 2023

Labor Day 2023 may be behind us, but our labor, our very important employees, are in front of us, always needing our support and assistance. Talking about ways we can make them better at their jobs is a relevant topic of consideration during September’s National Food Safety Education Month.

Can we ever learn enough about how best to educate our teams?

The most successful food safety programs recognize the critical connection between well-trained labor and successful compliance.

man and woman employee training

Speaking of education, I’ve learned a few important lessons since we founded Healthy Trailer LLC.

By observation and working through a number of uncomfortable situations, I believe that the practice of food safety, specifically, the actual ‘doing’ the activities necessary to meet and hopefully exceed food safety responsibilities, falls squarely on the shoulders of our employees.

Recently, we had a senior-level food safety professional stop by our site to see our system at work. Of course, we wanted him to understand the value of our service. But equally important to us was confirmation that what we were doing supported our claims of greatly improving trailer health.

As he asked questions and made suggestions, I felt a little nervous that my answers and comments didn’t quite meet his expectations. As I thought about the event later that day, the feeling I had was similar to the one I had after the essay sections of the California bar exam I had taken a number of years ago.

Did I cover the necessary ‘elements’ of his concerns? Did I clearly and adequately demonstrate that we understood the critical points most expert food safety professionals expect in a valid sanitation process?

With more mental evaluation, I realized that it wasn’t that I thought our SSOPs were incomplete. My concern was whether our employees were satisfactorily completing them as specified.

My question wasn’t about the content of the protocol but the practice of them.

So, at the core of my doubt was a question about the labor.

I had answered ‘yes’ to his questions because I knew we had SSOPs to manage specific situations. But I wasn’t 100% sure our employees could show that my answers were accurate. Fortunately for me, during our event review, I had a chance to ask questions and get some clarification about why things happened the way they did. We are on the right track.

But the situation helped me get ‘recentered’ on the importance of giving our employees more than a checklist. Every food and food transportation company shares this burden of properly preparing our employees for the food safety practices that comprise our food safety programs.

We can have solid sanitation standards and protocols to meet those standards. Still, gaps and errors in the performance of these protocols compromise the strength and validity of our food safety claims.

What’s in the ‘training drawer’?

When things do go wrong, everybody says, ‘They need more training.’

In all fairness to our hardworking employees, ‘training’ could mean many things.

Why does training sometimes feel like a drawer in the kitchen full of ‘usable but not needed right now’ stuff?

The contents of our training make sense to the people who build training programs. But standing in the shoes of an employee, would the pieces seem coherent and usable in real-life food safety situations?

Sure, we have checklists with steps or actions that are part of an SSOP. Our training includes instructions, practice, monitoring, and documentation. But by observation, we can see that maybe there is uncertainty or confusion about how and when to apply specific protocols.

employee packaging and preparing to transport food

Because Healthy Trailer works in the food transportation industry, we know that this problem is common for truck drivers and dispatchers responsible for transporting food cargo.

For example, clean and sanitary standards not only vary between companies but sometimes what one loading crew may accept as a clean trailer may get rejected at a different dock managed by the same company.

Drivers and their dispatchers/driver managers may know the protocol--that a trailer must be clean before loading food. But have they been trained to manage the typical shipping scenarios that, if mishandled, can cost time, money, customers, important vendors, or a good FDA inspection result?

Here are a few common examples:

  • Your customer’s dock is unsanitary, potentially subjecting your equipment to environmental risk;

  • Impatient/rude inspectors reject the trailer because of the trailer’s unsanitary conditions;

  • The trailer has pooling soap or chemicals that the washout person failed to remove, and

  • Prior cargo remnants/ materials are stuck on a surface and need more than a washout

In each situation, different factors (customers, contracts, shipping staff, etc.) can affect the outcome and cause problems. Giving drivers and dispatchers opportunities to experience these issues in a practice setting gives purpose to the content of our training programs.

Zones of Training Improvement

Think of training areas as zones of improvement that provide a progression from good to better and finally to best. Stopping at the first target may get the protocol practiced, but not on its way to good and toward best.

At the first level or zone of training, an employee’s ability to complete protocols often becomes the primary focus of a training program. Performance is something we can evaluate based on observation, review, and feedback.

female employee checking boxes

Here at Healthy Trailer, protocols are presented and trained in sections that cover machine maintenance, customer service and safety, site organization and safety, and process protocols.

The second level of training that becomes more difficult is helping the employee understand the ‘why and ‘how’ of our protocols. Prior cargo can complicate the process, impatient drivers can pressure the workers, and environmental conditions can change the frequency and/or the method of our pre-clean service, the number of rinse cycles, and the length of UVC application.

In other words, our employees will need to make quick decisions based on a number of factors that can affect the quality of the cleaning and sanitizing of trailers. Without the added ‘tools’ of knowledge and practice to help make these decisions, our service can be compromised.

The third level of training that will strengthen your team and give your food safety programs a ‘buttoned up’ feel (think culture) teaches your employees the skill of confident and competent communication.

I know about this because here is where I had failed.

Our employees know the protocols, they know why we have them, and how to use them to keep trailers FSMA compliant.

But, we had not fine-tuned the language and vocabulary, so that when they were asked difficult questions, they were not as prepared as they should have been.

This communication tool in your training drawer could be the difference between getting your dream customer, hiring the top-notch food safety professional you need, and contracting with FSMA-compliant trucking vendors…or not.

It could be the difference between your company getting a passing inspection or raising red flags to an FDA inspector.

The path from good to best in your training programs should include teaching and training them (and maybe yourself?) how to talk about what your company does that is not only compliant but competent.

Risk or reward- your choice and your outcome!

Risk is always breathing down our necks when we’re shouldering the world’s health and safety interests in managing our food safety responsibilities.

But since risk and reward are two sides of the same coin, it’s worth evaluating our training content and methods through the positive lens of the rewards gained in getting training right.

There are three to keep top of mind:

  1. Fulfilled compliance and contract commitments keep your customers happy, confident, and determined to keep you as one of their preferred vendors. That’s money in the bank and shine on your brand.

  2. Successful, confident employees will flourish and attract positive attention to your operation.

  3. Deeper, stronger leadership will develop, building an invaluable foundation of credibility and respect as your company pursues its vision, adapts to changing and emerging trends, and responds to crises.

Maybe your business is already on this path from good to best, and you and your employees are experiencing these rewards firsthand. Or maybe your team and the ‘tone’ of your culture are indirectly suggesting that there are some gaps in your program. The training drawer is full but not organized.

Back to School is Revise Season

One of the things I loved about September and October was the chance to return to my favorite back-to-school activities. But even though they were ‘repeats,’ there was always something to revise to improve it for my students and me.

kids getting on a school bus

I learned early in my teaching career that what I thought would be a ‘best practice’ could turn out completely opposite. Sometimes, our activity or method didn’t need to be discarded, but rather, just some tweaking.

What was necessary on my part was a willingness to objectively evaluate what worked and what didn’t in light of the overall end goals.

So, during September’s Food Safety Education Month, Healthy Trailer’s team encourages you to use the season to your advantage. Carefully consider your employees and the education and training you give them. Be willing to let go of the junk in the drawer and replace it with usable, valuable tools and content.

The rewards are waiting!

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