Employee Hygiene Goes Hand-in-Hand with Food Safety

Employee hygiene goes ‘hand in hand’ with food safety.

By Mike Pehanich, Plant Operations Editor

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Food safety is, without question, the No. 1 concern of the food processing industry. Each year, processors spend millions of dollars for the controls, manpower, facilities upgrades and equipment to assure their food operations are cleaner than Martha Stewart's kitchen.

Why then do companies frequently fall short at the most important interface in the food safety scene - the hands of their plant workers?

The vegetables may be clean when they come out of the rinse, but do they remain sanitary after contact with human hands?
The vegetables may be clean when they come out of the rinse, but do they remain sanitary after contact with human hands? Source: Ecolab

"The idea behind HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) programs is to identify areas where bacteria can get into food," says Hillard Witt, president of Best Sanitizers (www.bestsanitizers.com), Penn Valley, Calif. "And employee hygiene may be the biggest area of risk when it comes to product contamination."

An estimated 30 percent of all food contamination might be traced to human hygiene practices, Witt estimates - roughly the same as the risk stemming from improperly cleaned equipment.

"Look at the many thousands of dollars plants spend on equipment cleaning each year, yet often plants are not nearly as concerned with the personal hygiene of their plant personnel," says Witt.

Disparity between philosophy and practice - sanitizing hands twice in the plant and not at all in the restroom, for example - is common and the most important reason rigorous training and control measures must be put in place. Corporate and plant operations leadership have to close the "cultural gap” and change the mindset that keeps contamination risk at the human/food interface at such high levels. That means taking steps to build awareness and inculcate plant personnel - and not just line workers - into a culture of hygiene that makes best practice a habit.

"Face it: If you only get 20- to 30-percent compliance among doctors and nurses, obviously it's important to have programs in place to make compliance easier among plant personnel,” says Witt. "We recommend a total cultural change. I compare entering the food processing area to scrubbing before surgery to diminish the chance of contamination and infection. That's what we preach to the food industry."

Total package

Employee hygiene and sanitation is not just a simple game of hairnets and hand washing. It's a "total package" of principles, practices, training and enforcement that encompasses everything from soaps and sanitizers to uniforms, footwear, cleaning dispensers, clean rooms and entryways.

Processing plants have to take hygiene practices into their own hands before they can expect the soaps and sanitizers to transfer to the hands of plant personnel. Fortunately, the basic steps and formal processes required to keep food safe from human error are not difficult. Better products, training and services to facilitate such practices and insurance measures are more accessible each year.

Where do you start?

"The first thing you need to define is what is ‘compliance' to your plant hygiene standards and the repercussions of non-compliance," says Tom Boufford, manager of technical support for Ecolab (www.ecolab.com), Minneapolis, which offers complete programs along with hand soaps, footwear cleaners, and hand and glove sanitizers. "After that, you must follow with training."

Don't assume people know what needs to be done. Merely placing a bottle or dispenser of antimicrobial soap in the men's room does not guarantee plant personnel will use it - or use it effectively. Most employees want to do the job right, however. Management's responsibility is to provide appropriate training and to put in place enforcement and accountability measures to ensure standards and good intentions translate into effective hygiene practice. Work on ways to make it easy to comply, and put in measures to make non-compliance difficult if not impossible.

How?

"Uniform" standards

Clothing is a prime source of contamination. The best way to diminish the risk of contamination from clothing worn at your processing facility is to provide uniforms, gloves, boots, etc., and to make sure those uniforms and safety garments never leave the plant.

Shoes can track dirt and contaminants throughout a plant. Boot washers should be placed at entrances to production areas. Source: Meritech
Shoes can track dirt and contaminants throughout a plant. Boot washers should be placed at entrances to production areas. Source: Meritech

Cintas Corp. (www.cintas.com), the Cincinnati-based garment and facility service provider, offers customers a complete HACCP-directed employee hygiene program. It's a one-stop service with all products: bouffant, gloves, shoe covers, shoes, anti-fatigue mats, beard covers and more. Its garment-cleaning service employs a validated six-log microbe-reduction wash formula.

The program also includes a restroom-cleaning service centered around the Ultra-Clean Machine, which is half shop-vac and half power wash. It also can be used in production areas. "It cleans all surfaces thoroughly, sucks up the water and flushes it down the drain," says Cintas representative Jan Eudy, noting the importance of restroom cleaning and maintenance in any employee hygiene program. The program also includes Sanis hand-washing soaps plus an alcohol-based hand-washing agent.

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In recent years, anti-microbial fabrics have added a new dimension to hygiene and safety. Garments can easily pick up food and contaminants. Unbeknownst to the wearer, they can accidentally transmit contaminants by touch or proximity to food and food contact areas.

The latest generation of antimicrobial fabrics has clear advantages over its predecessors.

The new BioSmart antimicrobial fabric (patent pending) from Milliken & Co. prompted the creation of a partnership with G&K Services (www.gkservices.com) of Minneapolis, to produce antimicrobially charged garments and towels. BioSmart fabric binds chlorine molecules to the surface of the fabric. Milliken claims the chlorine will continue to kill deadly bacteria and viruses, including salmonella and E. coli, with 99.9 percent effectiveness after the material has been washed with EPA-registered chlorine bleach.

The products are now part of G&K's ProSura Food Safety Solutions program, a closed-loop effort from G&K to provide documented employee hygiene practices within HACCP efforts.

The Chelsea, Mass.-based dairy processor H.P. Hood employs uniforms that employ another antimicrobial system on coveralls, hoods and other materials in its sterile filling applications. The uniforms, provided by Cintas, incorporate an antimicrobial material called the Integrity1800 fabric. Introduced in 2000, the durable, non-leaching material with its "aegis microbial shield" contains the antimicrobial agent Silano-quat.

The Silano-quat molecule is a quaternary ammonium compound that kills bacteria. "The material offers no avenue for resistance because it kills on contact," says Eudy. She claims the technology is more durable than leaching and migrating technologies, which require regeneration of their antimicrobial agents.

Other segments of food, including the meat industry, have adopted it as well. It has been employed in non-sterile applications too, including Subway restaurants.

The ready-to-eat industry is following suit, notes Eudy, with butcher coat-style frocks of Silano-quat.

"You have ready-to-eat situations where food is contacted after it has been processed," echoes Terri Bringgold, marketing services at Ecolab, which also works with Cintas in providing chemicals for uniform cleaning. "That provides an opportunity for contamination." The focus in RTE applications should be at a point after a product has delivered its "lethal" blow to microorganisms.

Footloose and germ-free

Foot traffic is a primary vector of food contaminants. Footwear contacts and carries just about every contaminant imaginable.

Boots should be sanitized. Many plants employ chemical foot baths and other footwear cleaning devices to kill shoe-carried microbes. These chemical baths can be tough on shoe material, however.

Cintas has designed footwear made of materials that resist this repeated exposure to the disinfectant chemical. The company also offers two types of disposable foot covers: a polypropylene plastic-type and a polyethylene style, a cloth-like, skid-resistant material.

Boufford recommends foot foaming systems over foot baths. "A foot bath can be a problem," he says, noting Ecolab offers foot cleaning agents in its EcoCare product line. "It's not that the concept is bad, but the maintenance of a foot bath is generally bad. The bath becomes a microbial soup. If it's not cleaned right, you have a source of contamination rather than a solution. That's why we prefer foot foamers."

Foot foaming systems offer distinctive advantages. They can be timed or set to operate with a photo cell or infrared beam. Furthermore, they can be set to always put out the proper concentration of sanitizing agent.

Hands-off systems for hands-on treatment

Meritech offers an automated hand-washing system, which uses a cycle counter to verify hand washing frequency for HACCP and other programs.
Meritech offers an automated hand-washing system, which uses a cycle counter to verify hand washing frequency for HACCP and other programs.

"You have many automated ways to handle cleaning and sanitizing measures today so your plant is less prone to human error," says Boufford. "Whenever you can, automate. It works better."

Plant personnel and visitors are least likely to skip critical sanitary and hygienic steps when a plant establishes formal dedicated entranceways that pose physical barriers to entry - such as interlocking doors - particularly if entry requires execution of prescribed hygiene measures.

Automatic dispensers minimize or eliminate human contact and also dispense the precise amounts needed for effective cleaning.

Meritech (www. meritech.com), makers of automated hygiene equipment, recently introduced a new version of its CleanTech automated hand-washing system, which uses a patented technology particularly well suited to point-of-entry and cleanroom hand cleaning. The system provides a cycle counter to verify hand washing frequency for HACCP and other programs.

The company also offers an automated Boot Washer series (MBW2) available in "soles only" and "soles/sides/tops" models. Ideally, these systems should be placed at entrances to production areas. They also may serve as allergen-control tools between processing operations.

"Automated dispensers help reduce worker exposure and ensure proper concentration," says Bringgold of Ecolab. Such systems can be as important as the cleaning agents they contain, provided the systems can stand up to the rigors of a factory environment.

"We're proponents of ‘no-touch' systems," says Witt, noting that Best Sanitizer's systems were first installed in restrooms but are now commonly found on factory floors. "Whenever you can install a no-touch or infrared-operated dispenser, the system will be easier to use and you will get better compliance and greater reduction of contamination."

Gloves may offer additional protection, provided training and common sense hold sway. But "Most workers don't change gloves frequently enough," says Ecolab's Boufford. "Processors should have training sessions on gloves. They are not fail-safe. You still can't grab product off the floor or touch a contaminated surface with them." See that your plant has appropriate - and, if necessary, different - cleaning agents and systems for both hand and glove cleaning.

Check the approval and review codes on hand products. Use only products approved by regulatory agencies. Soap and sanitizer dispensers can help to optimize cleaning effectiveness and minimize waste.

USDA E-2-rated solutions are highly recommended. These products remove debris and organic matter and kill microorganisms. They also require a rinse with potable water. E-3 solutions are detergent-free. They sanitize only. Quaternary ammonium is the principal sanitizing agent.

Equipment

Though sanitary design and maintenance of equipment is an area of study all its own, it ties in directly to human hygiene and sanitation matters as well.

"One of the biggest factors in food safety is equipment cleanability," says Boufford, noting workers may be in frequent contact with the equipment. "Workers play a big role in potential cross contamination when they don't follow proper procedures or don't clean or maintain equipment properly."

The hygiene and sanitation of plant personnel cannot be maximized without rigorous standards, training, systems and enforcement procedures in place. In today's risk-heavy marketplace, lax hygienic practice can be an invitation to disaster.

Check with the companies referenced in this feature for training materials and programs that will help advance your employee hygiene programs and practices. Several offer low- or no-cost assistance in conjunction with product or program purchases.

Press respected and qualified vendors for assistance. Many of the top companies in this field are eager to provide counsel.

Take advantage of the available tools and counsel. Your employees' hygiene - like your product safety - is in your hands.

Note to Management

It's not just the employees who track in the lowly contaminants that can deliver a deadly blow to food safety. Management, visitors, equipment and service suppliers, vendors, inspectors, and maintenance personnel are more likely than mainstream plant personnel to track in soil or some microscopic intruder bent on raising havoc with your food products.

Ironically, executives visiting a plant can be some of the worst offenders, often ignoring fundamental precepts of hygiene that may be diligently practiced by plant workers.

Most importantly, management provides the leadership and role models critical to the kind of well-conceived and faithfully executed programs that protect your food supply from microbial intrusion.

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