Consider the following:
50% = The World Health Organization-estimated amount by which diarrheal disease-associated deaths could be reduced through regular handwashing with soap and water.
96% = The percent of shoes in a University of Arizona study that held coliform and E. coli bacteria—indicating frequent contact with fecal material, likely from restroom floors or outdoor animal feces.
It is because of such statistics that employee hygiene—particularly that of hands and footwear—is so critical to food safety. “Employee hygiene is probably the #1 risk prevention point in the facility for continuing food safety,” said Meritech CEO Jim Glenn. And the key to ensuring employee hygiene is its integration into a facility’s food safety culture.
“Everyone knows employee hygiene is important, but unless there is a food safety culture in place, it’s not going to happen,” Glenn said.
Such a food safety culture is led by senior management and evident from the moment one walks in the door of the facility. Glenn cited the restroom of a foodservice facility as an example. If you go into the restaurant’s restroom and it is dirty or obviously hasn’t been recently serviced, it is obvious that the restaurant doesn’t have a food safety culture and that management doesn’t really care about food safety. Thus, you may be taking a risk to eat there. The same is true, Glenn said, if the handwashing sink in a food production facility is dirty or dusty or no attention is paid to the cleanliness of footwear.
“Handwash compliance has been one of the biggest challenges in large processing facilities, because there are few solutions available to effectively capture everyone’s individual performance,” said CloudClean Director of Sales & Marketing Winn Keaten. Although many processing plants have rigorous wash protocols in place, he said, “Without the use of technology, there is simply no way to know for sure that everyone is complying as they should.”
Technology in this area is continuing to evolve, with some current systems that can help a facility enforce hand hygiene protocols including:
- Smart Badge. There are systems that implement the use of individual smart badges that identify when the person complies, or doesn’t comply, with the handwashing rules and actually uses soap, Keaten said. For example, if an employee doesn’t wash hands after using the restroom or upon entering a production area, he or she is immediately alerted by a beep emitted from their smart badge. Management can be alerted as well, if desired, but the primary goal is to empower the employee to self-correct, which also continually reinforces and trains them on the handwashing rules, he said.
- Interval Wash Protocol. If a facility has a protocol that employees wash their hands every half hour, or other frequency, the system can remind employees to wash based on their individual wash histories on a given day. If a worker is already washing as often as required, he or she will not be prompted to wash.
- Cloud Data. Systems that initiate such alerts and reminders may also have cloud-hosted data ports by which management can review team or individual data, handwash violations, etc., Keaten explained. Such data helps management understand the compliance rate of employees and know when training or retraining may be needed.
As indicated by the University of Arizona study, a primary route of contamination is the bottom of people’s shoes. As such, Glenn said, “Cleaning footwear has become just as important as washing hands when coming into the facility.”
“Compliance can be relatively easy and straightforward,” said Shoe Inn Global Product Manager Jeffrey Foster. “And there are ways to make it even easier and more effective through the use of available tools and systems.”
Some of the options available for minimizing contamination from footwear include:
- Shoe/boot washers, sanitizers, or scrubbers. Shoe/boot washes are often used in food plants and these can reduce contaminants that are carried in on footwear. Care must also be taken, Foster said, because the moisture can be slippery or damage footwear, and it is important that they be cleaned out or reset regularly.
- Captive footwear. The use of dedicated shoes that do not go outside of the sanitary area is another option, Foster said. This is gaining in usage, with many countries’ food safety regulations requiring such protocols and many U.S. facilities implementing the practice as well. The downsides to this practice could be the cost, storage need, and visitor/supplier availability.
- Shoe covers. Designed to keep contaminants contained, shoe covers (or “booties”) are worn over street shoes when in the production facility. Covers may be disposable or cleanable. Downsides for these can include size inventory and “bootie-hop” donning injuries if seating is not available, Foster said. Implementing automatic shoe-cover dispensers at entry points can make shoe-cover donning easier and increase employee compliance, he said.
No matter what type of food safety footwear is used, it is important to have standard operating procedures for having clean footwear in food areas, Glenn said. “It all comes down having control of the access to the food production area.” Thus, every facility should have:
- Verifiable SOPs for hands and footwear.
- Regular compliance measurement.
- Regular effectiveness measurement.
“Employee food safety education and protocol training, inspections, and penalties may help ensure that employees comply with the chosen anti-contamination method,” Foster said.
Glenn sees training—and retraining—as being of particular importance. Because the industry has a high turnover rate, monthly retraining should be conducted regardless of the equipment used, he said. And “you have to tell people every day that you are committed to food safety,” Glenn added.
“A strong food safety culture starts at the front door and is reflected in the investment and commitment to employee hygiene and SOPs,” he said. “Food safety culture is everything. Everything flows from that, and it starts with the CEO.”
The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com.