Creating and maintaining an efficient and safe meat and poultry processing environment demands a steadfast focus on employee training. Yet getting management to adequately invest in programs, and workers to effectively embrace the necessary procedures, does not come easily.
In a sector rife with issues such as frequent worker turnover, language barriers and evolving rules and regulations, plant and supermarket operators bear the burden of designing and implementing programs that not only resonate with employees, but are flexible enough to support changes in operating procedures.
Many companies are hesitant to devote adequate funds to employee training because of the incessant market turnover, says Kari Underly, principle at Range Inc., a Chicago-based meat and poultry marketing, consulting, training and certification firm.
“Because of frequent departures from jobs, a great amount of employers don’t want to provide workers with more than the basics,” she says.
But receiving top-quality training can empower employees and make them more appreciative of their employers, which can reduce turnover rates, she says.
Supporting potent training programs often is costly in both design and operation.
In grocery meat departments, for instance, newer employees often receive hands-on guidance from supervisors or colleagues, which reduces the time those workers will spend on production. In addition to affecting output, the training may result in having to pay overtime to other staffers to compensate for the staff reduction, Underly says.
It is essential for new hires to cut large amounts of meat during training in order to develop crucial hand/eye coordination, which they cannot obtain from other training methods, she says.
“Having the skill and finesse to cut meat correctly cannot be faked,” Underly says. “It is a very tactile procedure and must be interactive. The majority of training is on the job and that is what makes it so expensive.”
Hands-on training also is crucial if operators are going to reduce the most serious meat production mistakes, such as excessive trimming, which enhances shrink, and cutting items in the wrong direction, which can affect product tenderness, she notes.
At your service
In addition to mastering cutting techniques, it also is important for supermarket butchers to develop solid communication skills in order to interest shoppers in specific products and competently answer customers’ questions, says Rick Stein, vice president of fresh foods for the Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute (FMI).
The interactions will help supermarkets generate more activity from the many younger shoppers who want to cook but are unclear about cuts and preparation methods, he says.
“Millennials, Generation Zs and many Generation Xers love speaking with employees in groceries and that activity is the lifeblood of brick-and-mortar outlets,” Stein says. “The goal is to not just provide a product, but to create an experience.”
The need for meat and poultry workers who can engage consumers, meanwhile, has never been greater, Stein says, noting that retailers are “struggling” to find people with that skill set.
“Meat cutters don’t spend their days watching the Food Network,” he says. “Trying to get the old-school butcher to understand preparation options requires specific training and it is a challenge.”
Butchers also need to master other aspects of the workplace, including following proper food and worker safety measures.
Though most plant and retail meat department staffers are aware of the key requirements, such as the need to wear safety gloves and how best to operate band saws and clean and store knives, it still is crucial that operators consistently reinforce the behavior, Stein says.
A reward system that recognizes employees that follow safety protocols, for instance, can help keep the methodologies top of mind, he says. “It is amazing what workers will do if you give them a certificate, pin or some kind of acknowledgment,” Stein says.
The amount and type of training each employee requires can vary in accordance with their work history and upbringing, says Dennis Burson, a professor and meat extension and food safety specialist in the Department of Animal Science at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
“There is much diversity in the background of workers and the behaviors they formed prior to starting in a meat or poultry plant,” he says. “Their native culture can affect their habits and determine how companies should educate the employees.”
But regardless of the level of employee competence, it is important for companies to consistently review and update training programs to keep pace with changing requirements, Burson says.
“Food safety is becoming more detailed and complicated and the work force needs to evolve with these changes and handle the greater responsibilities, such as knowing what to do when deviations occur during production, such as technology failures,” he says. “Plant operators also should continually reinforce practices and have employees realize the importance of food safety and some of the science behind it.”
Holding regular team meetings provides a forum for emphasizing specific protocols, he says, and why the adoption of newer procedures is not change just for change’s sake.
Employing a combination of learning tools also can more effectively enhance worker knowledge because each person may respond differently to various instruction methods.
Instructional elements can include workbooks, videos, live presentations and discussions with colleagues, he says, adding that operators should also develop ways to track the effectiveness of each program and adjust accordingly.
“Meat and poultry workers are capable of learning new things, but changing their behaviors and attitudes so they follow the procedures can be difficult,” Burson says.
A failure to communicate
Additional difficulties stem from having to connect with the large number of plant workers who are not fluent in English, says Carey Allen, business manager, supply chain food safety, for NSF International, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based food safety auditing firm and standards developer.
“Communication and illiteracy barriers can impact a company’s ability to train their employees on proper food and worker safety procedures, such as hand washing,” she says, noting solutions can include hiring translators, providing competency assessments and offering training materials and signage in multiple languages.
“The most effective training programs cater to the employee and are multi-faceted,” Allen says. “This includes implementing programs in different languages and learning styles.”
Because most workers are predominantly either visual, auditory or hands-on learners, training is most effective when operators offer a variety of instructional methods, she says.
Educational systems, however, are becoming increasingly efficient and effective because of emerging technologies, Allen notes.
“It is now easier to educate employees at multiple sites using a single trainer via remote instruction,” she says. “Technology also is making it much simpler to offer training in multiple languages and is playing an important role in assessing employee competency to assure their understanding of food safety practices via assessments, tests and quizzes.”
In addition, newer online learning management systems enable workers to more easily and conveniently access data by supporting a multitude of web-based devices, Underly says.
The use of digital training programs in lieu of paper-based systems in processing plants and retail outlets also enables operators to update and distribute information and receive feedback more quickly and economically, she says. NP