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Overcoming language barriers to food safety in your facility

Your workforce is one of the most critical factor in the success – or failure – of your food safety program. They are responsible for food safety on a daily basis. But, with many employees having English as a second language, it’s possible your communication about food safety is not as effective as it could be. Are your hygiene processes and practices being understood and followed? And are your staff comfortable raising any concerns about food safety with you?

The diversity of today’s food processing plants

According to the 2016 Census, 21% of Australians speak a non-English language at home. This data illustrates the huge diversity of our population, culturally and linguistically. The most prevalent non-English languages in Australia are: Mandarin, Arabic, Cantonese, and Vietnamese. However, there are many more that make up the more-than-one-quarter of our population’s first language. Food processing plants attract a diverse workforce, with a high proportion of employees having a first language that is not English. Figures from the U.S. highlight the skew towards a higher culturally and linguistically diverse workforce in service work compared to other industries: in the U.S., 25% of service employees are born overseas compared to 16% for all other occupations.

The ongoing communication challenge for QA managers

Language barriers are not the only challenge for communicating food safety. Culture can also affect an employee’s attitude to hygiene standards and practices. For example, research has found that non-English speakers are in certain circumstances less likely than English speakers to talk to their managers about issues such as food safety practices. Being a diversely skilled workforce, it’s also possible that some of your employees cannot read or write – even in their first language. If this is the case, simply translating signs into other languages will not help communicate your messages. High staff turnover creates another ongoing challenge for training staff in food safety practices. A food safety program needs to take language and culture into account. But, how do you do this without investing a lot of money into training employees who may not stay with you long-term?

Involving employees in the development of your hygiene training program

The benefits of consulting with your staff from the outset is demonstrated in the U.S. case study, Preventing Post-Processing Contamination in a Food Nugget Processing Line When Language Barriers Exist . In this example, a food production factory in Wisconsin wanted to reduce the risk of cross contamination in its post-production processes. They started with their chicken nugget manufacturing line. Frank, the training manager consulted with Sergio, the product line foreman, a Spanish-speaker like many of the Hispanic employees working on the floor. On Sergio’s advice, Frank held a workshop with all his food production staff. Frank was surprised to hear the employees raise some of issues and risks associated with the post-production process. The nuggets were not being sealed property, because the wrapper was broken, for instance. Frank was not aware of this ongoing risk, and would have remained ignorant if he hadn’t talked to his staff. Sergio developed a plan to identify the desired actions and possible deficiencies in each step of the hygiene process. The next step was to develop training courses for the key behaviours. This would be followed by observations to ensure compliance. The involvement of staff in the plan enabled Frank to understand the issues on the floor. But, it also meant the employees were invested in the plan. In fact, they were excited that the new food safety program would solve some of their frustrations.

Lessons from behavioural science

The Wisconsin case study highlights the importance of psychology on influencing behaviour. By getting buy-in, Frank was able to create a positive attitude among his staff towards food safety. A best practice approach to food safety focuses on behavioural cues, not just verbal ones . As anyone who has travelled to a foreign country will know, non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions and gestures, play a big role in communicating across languages. Within food production, this might mean physically demonstrating food safety processes and procedures, such as physically demonstrating how to wear gloves . Visual cues may also include images. Pictures and photographs can be used at each step in the production line , from how to wash your hands to the way food is organised in the refrigerator. Images can also include reminders of your key messages about food safety, with people consistently wearing gloves, for example. You can also use visual cues to distinguish between high and low risk areas or equipment. Markings on the floor, for example, can communicate a high-risk zone . This helps eliminate foot traffic through areas where cross-contamination is a risk. Providing positive feedback to your employees has been shown to improve food safety behaviours and reduce turnover. This can incorporate non-verbal cues too, such as nodding, smiling and making eye contact. Some employers offer their staff classes in English, and this has been demonstrated to have a positive effect on work performance . Language barriers can be overcome with a food safety program that’s underpinned by behavioural science. The Continuum System by Kimberly Clark Professional can provide behavioural science with products designed with compliance in mind to help improve contamination control practices and drive an enhanced food safety culture.
You can even test your knowledge of food safety with the Masters’ Challenge. This free eight-question quiz enables you to anonymously compare your knowledge with your peers. It also offers insights into food safety, helping you stay informed with the latest research to improve your food safety culture. Take the Masters’ Challenge today.

12016 Census: Multicultural. Australian Bureau of Statistics.

2 Ibid.

3J.A. Neal, C.A. O’Bryan and P.G. Crandall, “Preventing Post-Processing Contamination in a Food Nugget Processing Line When Language Barriers Exit.” Agriculture, Food and Analytical Bacteriology, 2014.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8“Food Safety and Language Barriers on the Food Processing Line.” Food Safety Magazine, February/March 2015.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.