As food and beverage processors deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, they face dual challenges when it comes to training: keeping the current workforce safe and training new employees they’re hiring to meet a sustained, nationwide surge in demand.

While training currently exists for both of those needs, the combination of a fast-spreading viral pandemic and a surge in demand are forcing processors to quickly ramp up and adapt training on the fly. Following guidelines for social distancing and avoiding large groups adds another variable to developing a successful training program that meets all of the current needs.

Personal hygiene is a priority, including reinforcing guidelines for handwashing and protective equipment. Processors are also asking for help in training their workforces on what the coronavirus is and how employees can protect not only themselves, but their coworkers and others they come in contact with, says Laura Nelson, vice president of Food Safety and Global Alliances, Intertek Alchemy.

“In the noise out there with coronavirus, there’s so much coming at people that trying to pare that down to what the employee needs to know is a bit of a challenge,” says Nelson.

Traditional training often involves large groups of employees sitting in a classroom environment or working together on a production floor. But that model doesn’t work for processors that are trying to follow guidelines for social distancing, leading to an increase in efforts to develop individual training programs.

“That’s not easy, because we have a fair amount of industry out there that is actively hiring, and they are expanding shifts, expanding hours into weekends, etc.,” says Nelson. “So they have a tremendous amount of people they are onboarding.”

To successfully bring on new employees and get them up and running quickly is an additional challenge for processors. Facilities nationwide are adding or expanding shifts, running on weekend days when they might not have previously been online and trying to ramp up production in any way possible to meet the ongoing surge in demand. That means hiring more employees and getting them up to speed quickly while still meeting training needs.

“COVID-19 is the additive,” says Nelson. “If you were to take that out and just see a surge, that stresses an operation when you have to get new employees onboarded,” while meeting all the normal training requirements for food and worker safety, regulatory requirements and job duties. “That in itself is a task. Then this new layer of coronavirus and how you manage to that, it’s a heightened sense of awareness and there are some additive things people are doing.”

Among those additive things are changes to the physical operation of plants. Employees congregate in break rooms, restrooms and locker rooms. Processors are examining those areas to see how they can adapt, including taking such steps as implementing policies that employees can’t share break room tables or sit close to each other or staggering locker room access to avoid too many people in one place at one time. Processors are also focusing on protective equipment such as masks, gloves and sanitation chemicals, both to ensure that they have enough for employees and making sure it’s staying on site.

Cross-training is another area of focus. Some of that is being driven by things such as employees who would normally work in an area such as production for food service being trained on production lines for retail. It’s also an effort to ensure that there are enough workers available to cover all the required positions for a production line in the case of an illness or exposure that might have employees calling off sick or required to self-quarantine for 14 days.

But not every processor is affected the same way. Nelson points out that processors who serve customers such as restaurants may actually be slow right now, so they’re taking the opportunity to do online training in areas such as PCQI, HACCP or SQF.

“People are using this time, if they have the time, to focus on training, maybe get more team members trained,” she says. “It’s good to see that time being deployed and used to not only keep employees productive, but also build up some bench strength for when things start back up.”