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The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has thrust the importance of hygiene to the forefront of both organizational and home practices. “Both businesses and the general public now have immediate knowledge of the level of disruption and danger a pandemic poses, therefore companies need to adopt more stringent hygiene practices,” said Meritech Chief Technology Officer Paul Barnhill. But, he added, “COVID-19 is just one of the many risks that food processing plants have faced over the years. For processors, the threat of pathogens has always existed and illness from poor hygiene has always been a life or death matter.”

So it’s essential that food processors continue to build on the added hygiene practices and, Barnhill said, “Ensure that these measures remain standard practice going forward to further protect their consumers.”

With handwashing and sanitizing being a fundamental personal protection against the virus, Eagle Protect Vice President of Marketing Lynda Ronaldson sees such practices as continuing beyond the pandemic with improved hand and glove hygiene training, stations, and monitoring as part of the industry’s “new normal.”

It’s important to leverage the newfound awareness for hygiene advancement, Barnhill said. “Businesses have long played an integral role in affecting change in society, and with hygiene now being recognized as crucial in ensuring safety and consumer trust, businesses need to step up and support its importance, even after coronavirus news leaves the headlines.”

A Hygiene Culture. Maintaining a food safety culture, with a Food Safety Committee that includes individuals from all departments and all organizational levels, has become an industry best practice.

One aspect of this should be hand hygiene excellence for which employees are empowered to uphold themselves and others to best practices, be comfortable addressing poor practices, and be responsible for maintaining the cleanliness and supplies in hygiene zones, Barnhill said. “In an effective food safety culture, each individual should feel like they have a part to play in hygiene and are encouraged to do the right thing for food safety, even when no one is watching.”

In doing so, the facility can provide a “flat line of leadership when it comes to hygiene” for which employees are encouraged to think and act like owners, Barnhill said. One way to begin implementing this is by using a hygiene social contract that empowers employees to take personal responsibility for their part in maintaining the quality and safety of food they produce. For example, if they see non-compliance, they should be encouraged to address and report those situations to ensure that SSOPs are followed.

The food safety committee can play a part by supporting and bringing attention to hygiene issues that can affect food safety, and finding new ways to communicate the importance of hygiene throughout the year.

Additionally, he said, “All hires should be assigned a hygiene mentor to help them properly navigate hygiene zones and follow SSOPs.” Some team members may be better at mentorship than others, but it’s important to rotate this, as it will encourage employees to lead by example; ensure that everyone stays knowledgeable on proper hygiene behaviors; and know how to teach the protocols to new teammates.

Most personal hygiene practices rely heavily on human behavior, and one of the most effective ways to overcome the variability of that behavior is through automation, Barnhill said. Everyone washes their hands differently every time they do it. But, he said, “By implementing automated stations, you can standardize that handwashing process, providing consistent pathogen removal, every time.” 

Because of this, he said, hand hygiene practices at a facility should continuously be monitored to ensure their effectiveness. “Human behavior is among the top causes of the spread of pathogens, so for the safety of your consumers and employees, it’s critical to overcome the variability of human behavior in order to ensure health and safety.” 

A combination of regular training, monitoring of the handwashing process, and re-training on the proper steps throughout the year increases the likelihood of instilling good hand hygiene practices among your team. Then, he added, “Automated handwashing technology can improve the effectiveness of hygiene processes by taking human behavior out of the equation.”

While handwashing must be a basic compliance practice in all food-handling businesses, glove hygiene must also be considered when discussing hand hygiene, Ronaldson said. “Hands are an ideal means of pathogen transmission, especially when handling food; gloves should provide an effective barrier against viral and bacterial transmission.”

Training. As such, Ronaldson sees glove hygiene practices as an essential topic to be covered in employee hygiene training. If hand hygiene is inadequate and poor-quality gloves are used that do not provide sufficient barrier protection (micro holes, permeability, etc.), there is a definite chance of pathogen transmission, she said.

So, training should include best glove barrier protection knowledge; dispensing, donning and doffing advice; when to change gloves; and how to prevent cross-contamination of surfaces, she said. “This must be highlighted on a weekly basis to reinforce the seriousness of this.” 

In addition to that, however, “an employee hygiene training program should cover everything that an employee should do and be aware of to ensure food safety,” Barnhill said. Training should increase employee awareness and understanding of proper personal hygiene including the importance of coming to work with clean and trimmed fingernails; removing soils and pathogens in handwashing; correct donning of personal protective equipment prior to entering production areas; and the linkage between contamination touch points and unconscious actions, such as adjusting hairnets or smocks, that will require hand hygiene afterward. 

Employee hygiene best practices should be taught during onboarding training programs and reinforced throughout the year, Barnhill said. During huddle talks at the start of each shift, production team leaders should highlight good hygiene behaviors, consistently reminding everyone of the hygiene basics or calling out good or bad hygiene behaviors seen to help reinforce hygiene practices and its relationship with the food safety culture of the facility.

A matter of Life and Death. While the pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives, including a significantly enhanced focus on personal hygiene, the potential of foodborne illness from poor employee hygiene has always been a life or death matter for the food industry.

Thus, Barnhill said, businesses — which have far-reaching influence and massive impacts on the communities in which they operate — have to be socially responsible to themselves, their employees, and the public to reinforce hygiene best practices and encourage their continued adoption.

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