Food Safety Starts with Frontline Workers


You’ve probably never heard of Hermann Ebbinghaus – he’s a 19th century German psychologist who developed what’s called “The Forgetting Curve,” which shows how information is lost over time when there is no attempt made to retain it.

So how does Dr. Ebbinghaus’ work connect to food safety? His work is more applicable than you might imagine. That’s because every food business needs to make sure that its frontline workers receive vital food safety knowledge. Even more importantly, they need their workers to retain and apply that information in their daily work.

But the way frontline workers are trained today is at odds with how people actually learn, remember and apply knowledge – limiting how effective we can be at driving better food safety outcomes. We’ve discovered that sitting workers down for extended training sessions is just about the best way to make sure they’ll forget everything you’ve taught them. That’s because presenting a large amount of information to them doesn’t take into account the best ways to encourage consistent behavior change.

That’s a significant problem, especially when it comes to something as important as food safety, where everyday actions, like proper food handling, can make all the difference. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most common contributing factors to foodborne illness are often behavioral issues, such as poor personal hygiene or inadequate cooking. To successfully change behaviors, it’s time we look past traditional training methods into a more agile, just-in-time approach.

Training based on human behavior theory

Through our work with customers, Ecolab is applying key principles of human behavior theory to the vitally important world of food safety training.

We do that by developing operationally focused training that empowers frontline workers with technology and information they can really use. This approach is informed by what’s called the 70-20-10 rule. 10% of the learning we absorb happens in formal, classroom-type settings. 20% is gained through social conversations and interactions. And the remaining 70% of learning is done by applying it on the job – this is where we focus the bulk of our efforts.

Not only are we helping frontline employees acquire vital food safety knowledge, we’re also making sure they have the opportunity to apply it right away, significantly boosting their retention of what they’ve learned. This practice is important because we’ve found that humans will forget about 75% of newly acquired information unless it’s applied within the first week of learning it.

In practice, this means shortening the window between training and application – for example, if you put an employee through food safety training, make sure they’re scheduled to work in the next few days so they can put their new knowledge into practice. In addition, we’ve found that to maximize retention, it’s important to follow up those hands-on lessons with practical reminder checklists and online portals for refreshers on processes and systems.

There’s a lot of opportunity in this space and organizations like the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) help us share information and best practices across companies and industries to move these efforts forward. With training that’s designed with human behavior in mind, we can enable greater business success, while delivering safer food for everyone.

About the Author

Bob Sherwood headshot

Bob Sherwood

Executive Vice President, Institutional Food Safety and Public Health

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