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Greetings to all my friends and colleagues in the food manufacturing business and to all that are reading this article for enjoyment or additional learnings. What a year was 2020; a year to remember or a year to forget? For me, 2020 is a year to remember. I take any experience, good or bad, as an opportunity to embrace, learn, and reflect on how to utilize that experience to make things better in the future. We can build on our good experiences and convert the negative experiences into something that can be positive going forward.

As I reflect back on the beginning of the year, 2020 looked bright and fun. Twenty-twenty, fun to say, and easy on the eyes. My youngest son was graduating from high school in the spring, and my twins were starting their senior year of college in the fall. We were all excited to flow through the year for the special events we anticipated and the holidays that were to fall on or near the weekend.

We expected 2020 to be a good year. Then things began to change. In the first quarter of the year, the news of the coronavirus disease 2019, COVID-19, began to consume the airwaves.

COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory and vascular disease went global and changed the world in which we live. In March 2020, my then-juniors in college were sent home for remote education and my then-high school senior transitioned to at-home learning to minimize the chance of spreading the easily transferred illness. We all expected the shut-in was for a short period only. We said, “We can do this” and then get on with our lives as they were before the COVID-19 news. We, as a family of five, found ourselves spending nearly every waking hour together without the opportunity of interacting face to face with other people. We enjoyed the homebound family gatherings of dinner together every evening. Game nights, movie nights, and a late-night family poker tournament are all memories we cherish to this day.

But, as enjoyable as the family events were at the time, the daytime workload and associated activity increased exponentially. As a quality professional, the COVID-19 risk was everywhere; the focus was not only on how to maintain high quality and safe food products for our customers, the attention now also focused on employee health and safety. Health and safety are always important at the work site and at home, but with this easily transferable virus, measures to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks at the work site had to be implemented quickly, be communicated clearly, and be effective for their purpose.

For those manufacturing facilities that were diligent with their actions, which included measures such as requiring employees to wear masks, staggering work start and end times, modifying employee break and lunch times to minimize gathering of personnel, and enforcing social distancing. When social distancing is not practical, Plexiglas-like barriers were installed to reduce possible aerosol transmission. The addition of the barriers also meant that the glass and brittle-plastic register had to be updated and the Plexiglas integrity periodically inspected.

As with any routine quality, compliance, or food safety initiative, the quality department often develops and issues controlled documents in the form of policy, procedures, protocols, standard operating procedures, or guidelines. These documents provide the direction or tools to other departments and plant personnel toward successful execution of quality, compliance, and food safety. In this instance, with COVID-19 employee-safety initiatives, instructional documents in the forms mentioned, are issued to provide guidance toward employee behavior to give the best chance to remain healthy. My emphasis here is that the quality department issues the document — but it is up to plant personnel to successfully carry out or execute the instructions satisfactorily to obtain the desired outcome.

When the desired outcome is not achieved, it is important to investigate if the failure lies with the issued quality-control document or in the employee/department execution of the provided instructions. Regardless of the determination, achieving the desired outcome is a two-step process. The first step is to provide complete and accurate instructions that are followed to achieve the desired outcome. The second, equally important step is for the department and employee to accurately follow the provided instructions. When done well, the desired outcome is more easily achieved. Granted, this is a simplistic approach and there are always other factors to consider when the desired outcome is not met. This simplistic approach, however, is where most failures occur.

As we close out this most unusual year, I encourage you to do your best to remember the good, the fun, the positive experiences you enjoyed throughout the challenging year. Be pleased with how you adapted to keep yourself safe and implemented protocols to keep employees safe when followed correctly. A quote from Winston Churchill in 1942 similarly applies to the pandemic we are currently experiencing, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps the end of the beginning.” In addition the responsibilities you hold, as a leader, for quality, compliance, food safety, and human safety, your responsibility now includes avoiding human illness cross contamination to an entirely new level. The often-written and verbally shared simple instructions to offer an effective way to remain healthy are wash hands frequently, wear a mask, and social distance. Follow those simple instructions, and 2021 will be another great year to remember!

Bradd Eldridge, Director of Quality Assurance Operations, McCain Foods, North America