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It’s the bottom of the fifth at the 2016 MLB All-Star game. But there are no players heading to the outfield. Rather everyone in the stands, dugouts, and bullpens alike are standing up holding placards with S?2C and the name of a friend, relative, or for many, simply the word “Mom.” There is silence as recording artist Rachel Platten takes the field and begins to sing an emotional rendition of “Fight Song,” honoring each cancer-fighting person named on the thousands of “I Stand Up for …” placards being held by fans, players, and coaches. The fifth-inning tribute has taken place for several years, but the impact of a stadium filled with hand-written name after name after name of a person affected by and fighting cancer still imparts a powerful poignancy … a personal impact.

ENLIGHTEN. It is that same sort of personal appeal that, when brought to the food plant’s allergen risk management program, can be a very powerful way of not simply instructing plant workers on allergen cross-contact prevention, but enlightening them as to its importance in a way that hits home in an individually relatable way.

“Making it personal is really the key,” said Alchemy Senior Product Manager Holly Mockus, who worked in or with food plants for 35 years prior to joining Alchemy. “Rather than talking about abstract concepts, making it relatable and about people that the workers have a personal connection with is an awesome way of enlightening them.”

This can be done with a method very similar to that the MLB uses to increase the awareness of the extent of cancer:

Ask for names.

Stephen Taylor, a professor of Food Science & Technology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-director of its Food Allergy Research & Resource Program (FARRP), has been a part of food plant training at which such methods have been used. In one, Taylor said, the trainer went around the room, asking participants to introduce themselves and say if they know of anyone with a food allergy and what that food is. Each food was written on a whiteboard, adding tick marks each time the food was repeated. By the time everyone was finished, a majority of the participants had a personal contact with someone with a food allergy. “Today, it is prevalent enough that almost everyone knows someone,” he said.

“Every time I’ve seen it done, it’s the Big 8 that come out with the most tick marks,” Taylor added. But even if a food is named that isn’t on the list, simply write it down and move on. “You’re not in a position to give medical judgment, just take it as is,” he said.

Mockus has seen similar trainings at which the instructor asks for a show of hands of those who have a food allergy; then adds those who have a family member with a food allergy; those who have a friend or co-worker with a food allergy; and, finally, those who know anyone with a food allergy. Again, a high proportion of participants have a hand raised by the end of the questions.

While this starts the enlightenment process, having co-workers tell their stories takes it to the next level, with both Taylor and Mockus describing such storytelling as being “very powerful.”

“Identify staff members at several levels who have a family member who has a food allergy,” Taylor said, and ask if they would be willing to tell their story – what happens if they eat a food with the allergen; what do they have to do each day to avoid it; what does grocery shopping and eating out entail; etc. For example, at one session, the quality assurance manager talked about life for his son who has a life-threatening peanut allergy and their trips to the emergency room.

Mockus, herself, relayed a story of a daughter’s friend who attended a party at her home when the girls were small. Even though the girl was very young, she knew the seriousness of her allergy, Mockus said. “She was peanut allergic, so she asked me to read all the ingredients to her of all the snacks I had put out.”

Another option is to create a video of workers from various facilities telling their stories, which Taylor has seen done at larger corporations.

For those who don’t have such resources – or simply want to expand their options, Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) has a YouTube page with a number of videos that companies can show at meetings to increase awareness and enlightenment.

EDUCATE. While it is essential to get the buy-in of the workers and build their desire to reduce allergen risk, training must also educate the workers on their in-plant roles in preventing cross-contact.

One of the most effective ways to train is to move the education out of the classroom and extend it to the plant floor for a period of time, Mockus explained. In this way targeted training can be applied and corrections made if a worker is not quite getting it.

This doesn’t, however, mean that classroom training on policies and practices is not needed; in fact, allergen training needs to be repeated and ongoing. “I think what happens is that we think that because we’ve done some training, that’s all we need to do,” she said. Thus, workers should continuously receive training and reminders on the plant’s allergen practices and policies – whether these be in the classroom, at pre-shift huddles, or through posters and signage – with particular focus on the areas of greatest risk, such as in changeover, labeling, etc.

To help educate plant personnel on practices and actions that help to reduce risk, Taylor suggested a way to extend the personalization into this arena. “Share vignettes of places where employees have saved the day by their alertness,” he said.

As an example, Taylor relayed the story of an employee on the start-up crew who noticed that a line had not been satisfactorily cleaned, so he stopped the line and alerted management. Another example that Taylor gave was that of a worker who noticed, and quickly alerted management, that the candy inserts to a cookie seemed to be the wrong color. It turned out that the wrong formulation was being used; and because it contained milk, continued production would have led to a Class 1 recall due to an undeclared allergen.

“Employees need to be widely publicized within the company and facility when they do save the day,” he said.

Rather than talking about abstract concepts, make allergen training about people.
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EMPOWER. Such commendation not only recognizes what is being done right to reinforce an action, it empowers the workers to take action if they see an issue and know that they will be commended – not admonished – for it, even if it impacts production.

“You need to look at rewarding good behaviors – even just through recognition, calling it out in front of their peers,” Mockus said. “Just saying please and thank you doesn’t do much. What really works is recognizing behavior and the outcome of that behavior.” For example, once the action is recognized, the fact that it protected consumers, prevented a recall, etc. should be explained. “Positive reinforcement for a job well done is extremely powerful,” she said. “That’s really what drives that culture."

But for it to work, Taylor said, “Management has to be 110% behind these initiatives,” You can’t have an operations manager who just wants to make quota working against the quality assurance manager. “You can’t have those conflicts. Everyone is trying to please management to achieve whatever the goals are; among those goals should be allergen prevention because it’s the #1 cause of recalls.”

“A lot of recalls are preventable,” Taylor said. “The number one cause [of allergen recalls] is putting the wrong product in the wrong package. A vigilant employee can go a long way toward preventing that. You have to make sure you are empowering them to do that.”

ENSURE. How do you know if your enlightenment, education, and empowerment efforts are paying off?

Ask.

Taylor recommended simply walking up to a worker on the line and asking specific questions about allergens. Does he or she know what allergens are; if any are in the product on the line; what cautions need to be taken?

Beyond that, it is simply a matter of stepping back and observing production – making sure workers are putting into practice what they have been taught, Mockus said.

Enlightening, educating, and empowering workers will make your allergen management program personal and help to ensure it truly manages risk – for you and your food-allergic consumers.

The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at llupo@gie.net.