Food Safety and the Language Gap
By Erika Perez de Jennings
You get to the plant floor and see a mess. The dust collector stopped working. There are tools on a table nearby, but nobody seems to be fixing the issue. Fine dust flows in the air and falls on packed boxes, machines, and people. You look around, and workers continue doing their production tasks as if nothing is wrong. I approached a new lady who was moving a bag of paprika up to the mezzanine and asked her what had happened with the dust collector. She looked at me and said, “No hablo ingles."
It caught my attention that nobody seemed alarmed. No one went to the office to inform any of the supervisors about what was going on.
It goes beyond the language we speak and the country we are from. A mix of fear to speak up, embarrassment for not knowing English well, and the sense that somebody else will take care of it.
Floor employees work with their hands, and we have to provide them with clear examples and demonstrations of what is right, and what is wrong. We have to say, “Es importante, escúchame.” This means, “It's important, listen to me.”
We want their commitment to do a good job, not only to produce food no matter what. Leaders have to be the example. A good supervisor must understand the employee culture, communicate accordingly, and also be able to communicate the company’s food safety culture to the worker so that he or she cares.
Effective Food Safety Bilingual Training
If a company hires Spanish-speaking employees with basic or no English, all training must be provided in both languages. Here are some suggestions:
- Create an on-boarding program in both languages, and have native speakers of each language delivering the presentation. Do a walking tour of the production area/shipping/receiving/blending, etc. and point out how things work.
- Translate the main parts of the Good Agricultural Practices, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, and Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls programs. Create short sessions with quizzes and activities to measure learning.
- Repeat as many times as necessary the importance of personal hygiene, sanitation, cross-contamination, and allergens so they understand why things are done.
- Use real-life examples of recalls with products that employees may be familiar with. Ask them what would happen if a friend or close relative was a victim of a company’s lack of care for food safety.
- Make them proud when they do things right—individually or as a team. Use phrases like “¡Bien hecho!”, which means “Good job!” or “Well done!” On the flip side, also talk to them when mistakes happen, “¡Tenemos un problema!” or “We have a problem!”
- Enroll supervisors and managers in language courses if the company’s budget allows for it. Also, plant floor workers who demonstrate loyalty can be rewarded with English workplace courses.
Break the gap!
Erika Perez de Jennings is an SQF-Certified Food Safety Professional with Training Connexion.