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What you wear says something

I am sure some of you reading this have teenage children. You can relate to the angst and arguments that sometimes go along with teenage wardrobe selections. Well, this is a teachable moment for food safety culture. What we wear can influence how we behave. Your teenage child again is the perfect example here – I can hear a few sighs.

I have told many young wanna-be food industry experts, “Make sure you are ready to dress the part!” As we know, our day-to-day dress is far from fashionable; hiding under a lab coat, hairnet and now a mask just doesn’t work for everyone. But this is exactly what we should make work for us.

Frank Yiannas, in his book Food safety=Behavior, quotes some interesting research conducted by Adam and Galinsky (2012). They tested a hypothesis about people’s actions and how they were affected by the symbolic meaning of clothing and then actually wearing them. They found that telling the study group they were wearing a “doctor’s coat” (our ‘good ole’ lab coat) had an impact on the way they performed a task.

We can learn a whole bunch of things from this, but I want to focus on the fact that we share the clothing worn by doctors. During the pandemic, we have been frequently called to remember our ‘frontline’ workers – the doctors and nurses who have worked tirelessly to save many lives affected by COVID-19. We have been reminded of the significance of their actions and often personal risks. This gives us an analogy for the food industry.

Personally, I prefer to lab coat to a Conti suit, also for this reason. Wearing the uniform of a doctor while preparing food and using this reference in personal hygiene training should remind us of the importance of the activities we perform to prevent our consumers from becoming ill. I get that it may not be practical in all settings, but we can use still use this principle. A couple of suggestions:

1. Why do we have our current clothing policy? What did we think about food safety when we chose the uniform? Did we think about food safety, other than ‘no buttons’ or ‘pockets’” – you know, reaction to audit requirements only?

2. What do we say to employees when we issue this uniform? Do we communicate the pride we have in our uniform during induction training? Do we applaud them coming onto the floor dressed in ‘our uniform’ for the first time? Do we talk about our protective clothing with the same pride and significance on an ongoing basis?

3. Do we require our clothing to be well maintained, clean, and worn correctly for the right reasons? Not only to protect our products but to ensure our employees remember why we wear them.

Frank reminds us of the many important professionals that wear uniforms to signify the importance of the tasks they perform. We can use similar symbolism in the food industry such as badges, stripes, etc. to influence behaviour (without causing a physical hazard!).

So, let’s dress for food safety success this week.

Linda Jackson - dressed for food safety success.