During a global pandemic, one key advantage of a proactive employee-training program is ensuring employees are trained on proper restriction and exclusion of personnel within the establishment related to employee sickness. 

“If employees are trained to identify signs of sickness, this results in a safer production environment for those processing, as well as less chance of communication of these illnesses to the public,” says Abbey Davidson, food safety consultant at We R Food Safety!, in Menomonie, Wis.  

During a normal year, proactive employee training also keeps processors out of trouble with inspectors and minimizes the chances a company could fall into a recall situation or cause a food-safety incident, says Donna Schaffner, associate director of food safety, quality assurance, and training at the Rutgers University Food Innovation Center, in Bridgeton, N.J. 

Training also allows employees to identify when an instance is an actual food safety vulnerability. For example, say an employee drops a pork belly on the floor. Rather than discarding the entire belly, the employee may be able to trim the contaminated parts and have that belly go back into production, resulting in a lower process loss, Davidson says. 

Knowing when a cooked product has deviated from a food safety limit and not just a process/critical control point also is important. “Countless pounds of product have been saved when deviations occur by employees who were properly trained and advised to decide if product does need to be discarded, can be recooked or can be sold as is,” Davidson says. 

Training challenges

With the pandemic, processors are facing additional barriers to employee training. Taking time out of the work schedule to conduct training when the workforce is diminished because of the pandemic is one of the greatest current challenges, Schaffner says. 

“Some companies just stopped training employees because their workforce was stretched too thin between actual illness and employees having to stay home,” she explains.

Additionally, challenges to training are employees who are not fluent in English coupled with finding qualified individuals to conduct in-plant training for those employees, who are not comfortable in a traditional classroom setting, she adds.

“Early in the pandemic, most training came to a halt as people were encouraged to stay at home, and were afraid to congregate in traditional classroom settings,” Schaffner says. “Later, many of us trainers transitioned to virtual training platforms, but not all food-processing employees had the appropriate computers and internet access in their homes.”

Currently, most training for certificate classes such as BPCS, HACCP and PCHF have transitioned to a virtual format, Schaffner says.

As far as a best-practices approach to employee training on COVID-19 protocols, what works best for employee training can differ. “Small-group instruction with hands-on demonstration in the actual work environment in the language that employees understand would be the best of all worlds,” Schaffner explains. “In work settings where multiple languages are spoken, large visual diagrams or photos posted in employee welfare areas are helpful. Also helpful is placing colored stickers or tape on floors to mark the 6-foot social distancing space required between people waiting to use the time clock or waiting to go through a food vending area at lunch breaks.”

Schaffner finds many companies are asking for a return to in-plant trainings for their line-level employees. Additionally, COVID-related training continues to evolve as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommendations continue to change. 

As employees have been harder to obtain, some companies also have purchased newer, more automated machinery and robotic components. “Each new component requires employee training regarding the cleaning and sanitation of the piece of equipment,” Schaffner says.