I was at a meeting today that finished just before lunch. It was in a recently developed area I’d not been to before, so I decided to pop in to a restaurant and grab a bite to eat before heading back to the office.
It was a beautiful new place, all white tiles and stainless steel with some funky hipster artwork to offset the slightly clinical look. I approached the counter to place my order, and there they were! In use! Right in front of me!
That completely blew up the order process! I had to have some!
The bright young person taking my order told me, with a confused expression, that the gloves were not for sale, but she could get her manager and maybe he would give me a pair because she thought they were pretty cheap.
I’m sure you’ve all seen it before. Those gloves that get used for everything, with no washing or changing in between. Handling RTE food, cleaning up the spill on the bench, taking the cash payment and giving the change, all with the same pair of gloves in use.
If you think this is confined to the retail food preparation environment, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this misunderstanding about the purpose and functionality of gloves extends to the manufacturing environment as well.
Not that long ago, I was visiting a supplier, doing a quality assessment, and working with the Senior Leadership Team on a program of continuous improvement. During the plant tour, I took the opportunity to stand back and watch the process in action, observing the flow of product and the movement of people. I watched the Shift Supervisor, with his bright blue gloves on, working the line and helping to sort the product, removing defects. When he was finished there, he moved on, and happened to notice pieces of dough that had fallen off the line onto the floor underneath the conveyor belt.
So down on his hands (gloved, of course!) and knees he went and picked up the offending dough, taking it over to the bin. Then back on track to his next stop helping someone else.
I turned to the General Manager beside me and asked him if he saw that.
His response was, “What?”
He saw the exact same sequence of events that I had, but had a completely different version of it in his own mind. He saw a helpful Supervisor interacting with employees and concerned about product quality and safety.
I saw multiple cases of probable cross contamination and possible public safety hazards.
That certainly wasn’t the only time I saw the Magic Gloves in action. Some years ago I was working in a food processing business where a team of people were preparing fresh produce. The team had fairly long shifts in one spot, handling the same material. They were required by the business to wear gloves to ensure the safety of the prepared produce, but for some reason, we kept seeing spikes of bacterial load, and I was there with a colleague trying to get to the root cause.
Long story short, it turned out that the workers’ hands sweated inside the gloves, and, over time, the gloves developed small holes. As the team worked, they were inadvertently contaminating the produce from the sweat coming through the holes in the gloves.
Before you toss those gloves out altogether, gloves do have their place. For one thing, the FDA requires that gloves be worn by food service workers when handling ready to eat (RTE) foods.
But the lessons to be learned from both of these stories, are that one set of gloves should only be used for one task at a time. Hand washing should be done before and after putting the gloves on, and even if you are doing everything right with glove use, you still need to make sure that the gloves are changed out frequently, even when you don’t think they need it, to avoid overuse safety issues.
In my time in the food industry, I have seen more bad practices around the use of gloves than I have with hand washing. That sounds like an overstatement, but I stand by it.
Part of the problem with the use of gloves is that team members may confuse the use of gloves for food safety with the use of other personal protective equipment, such as safety goggles to protect their eyes. The gloves are there to protect the food from contamination from the Team Member, and the surface of the glove is just as susceptible to contamination as skin is.
I have found it easier to convince Team Members to wash their hands more frequently and properly than convincing them that the Gloves are not “Magic,” so my default is to avoid the use of gloves unless it is mandated.
The Magic Glove challenge is yet another time consumer for all our dedicated QA professionals, and one that we cannot ignore. We need to spend more time on education and Food Safety in general, and we are all challenged to do that in a way that really engages the hearts and minds of our target audience – the Team Members.
Some tips on the things that I have seen work:
- Keep it fresh and relevant. Make sure you get the full engagement of your most senior leadership team first – nothing like the shadow of a leader to set the tone and culture—both good and bad—around Food Safety.
- Make good use of positive reinforcement and try to catch people doing the right thing, publically recognizing them for it in front of their peers.
- Use fun visual aids. After my previous Blog about washing hands, there were some awesome contributors like Andrew Thomson and Megan Giese who highlighted the use of Glitter Bug or Glow Germ to help visually show people how poorly their normal way of washing their hands really is.
As usual, all this assumes that it’s easy. As we say at Actionable Quality Assurance: QA is hard, and it always has been. The challenge of nurturing the right behaviors is significant. It requires us to outthink the barriers and dedicate ourselves to changing the existing mental models, while still attending to the huge amount of details we need to be on top of in the rest of our job.
However, finding the time to focus on game changing programs is within our sights. With the emergence of new, Cloud-based technology solutions, the job of keeping track of all the documents, audits, corrective actions and data has recently become so much easier, and this is taking an enormous headache away from our dedicated QA and Food Safety Professionals. These new technology solutions take the drudgery out of what needs to be done to keep the systems up to date, and allow us to focus on the real work – nurturing the right behaviors of the human beings on the front line.
So to your challenge this time – take 10 minutes of think time, and respond to this post with your suggestions of great ways to make sure that we can keep our Food Safety training fresh and engaging. Share your ideas with other QA Professionals who are reading this and have the same challenges that you do. Perhaps we can all learn from each other.
And share your own fun “magic gloves” story. I know we all have them. The more we can highlight the fallacy of the “magic gloves,” the better chance we have of getting the message across about how dangerous the misconceptions really are.
Of course, if you're done talking, and done sharing stories, and want to just get to the solution? Give the AQA demo a go. It's practically magic.