"Here, let me show you how to do that.” This phrase could make all the difference between a successful food handler-training program and a frustrating, ineffective waste of time. Note, I did not say, “Look here, stupid this is what you better do or else.”
Safe food handling procedures are learned behaviors. One of the more important tasks and challenges is to teach safe food handling procedures and, in many situations, to modify incorrect behavior. The diverse mix of cultures, levels of literacy and turnover within the industry’s workforce make the challenge even greater.
Much research has been done regarding effective methods of teaching and communicating and it is clear one size does not fit all. Two distinct learning styles have been defined: oral (verbal) and print (literate). The style you choose to employ will depend on the audience you are addressing.
Oral learners prefer to have a concept verbally explained to them by someone they are comfortable with and who can present the information in a manner easily understood without abstract language or unfamiliar terms. Examples, repetition, stories and a big-picture overview also contribute to the learning process.
Experts in the field of learning believe that all people are born oral learners and learn to be print learners if they grow up around others who acquire information through reading.
A study of the role of communication surrounding food- borne disease outbreaks suggests that foodservice workers are predominantly oral learners. Oral communication methods identified as having a positive impact on changing food-handling behavior included:
• stories and vivid examples that allow food workers to “feel” the impact of a behavior
• role models who show and model appropriate behavior in supportive ways
• information provided by people who use familiar words and examples workers could relate to
• verbal information provided often and repeated regularly
• eye contact and simply worded signs posted as reminders
The following are communication methods identified as not impacting behavior:
• information provided in books or articles
• information presented using jargon or “big” words
• time pressure/stress
• information presented only one time
• information presented but not practiced by those presenting the information or using examples that did not relate to their life experiences
Whether your organization has an in-house training program or you depend on a trade organization or a contracted trainer, the more you understand about the different communication/learning styles of your employee the more effectively you will be able to communicate with them.
While these are the two most prominent teaching styles, a third style—nonverbal—can be used to support the other two or stand on its own. An example of nonverbal is a DVD on hand washing available from www.handwashingforlife.com. This is an outstanding short video on proper hand washing without a spoken word and is understandable in any language.
The materials offered on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s website include posters in numerous languages. Fortunately, these materials also provide drawings and illustrations to communicate the message nonverbally. Food handlers can be illiterate in any language.
FDA has created an Oral Culture Learner Project that provides guidance and a wealth of training materials geared to the oral communication style. The goal of this project is to provide materials and methods that are effective in helping food employees understand why following proper food safety practices is important to prevent illnesses, death, loss of income and reputation resulting from food-related outbreaks.
Oral learners place a high emphasis on feeling comfortable with the individual they are learning from. Managers and regulators are predominately print learners and will tend to use a print style of communication when addressing oral learners. This is typically viewed as a pressured or authority-based approach and the results generally are poor.
I have conducted thousands of food safety/sanitation audits in foodservice/hospitality operations as a third party. When I walk in as an auditor, whether the staff is familiar with me or not, I’m viewed as an authority figure. Smiles and greetings are tense and little learning or real communication takes place during the course of the audit.
I have also spent an entire week at some of the same foodservice facilities as food safety support during a convention or conference. The same people who may have been tense and guarded during an audit are relaxed, open and willing to discuss procedures and possible changes. When it’s clear I’m there in a support role, learning and communication happen more easily.
The friendliest regulator is still a regulator. The friendliest boss is still a boss. Recognizing how a teacher is viewed by students will allow you to make adjustments so you can properly connect with students and support safe food handling procedures.
Steven Sklare is a sales executive for food safety services at SGS, based in Fairfield, NJ. He has been working in the food industry for more than 20 years performing supply chain risk management, food safety audits and training, food safety management plan design and pest control services. He can be reached at email@example.com.