One key role of the sanitation team is often overlooked: the team actually plays a crucial part in the success of the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program. In addition to their primary tasks of cleaning, the sanitation team must help deny pests ingress to your facility and limit the food, water, and shelter that pests need to survive and breed. It is, therefore, vital that all sanitation team members understand the signs of pest activity and the need to report those signs. Furthermore, they must understand the risks associated with their own behavior and the behaviors of others. For example, the common problem of doors being left open during overnight sanitation shifts can contribute to pest ingress.
The people on the sanitation team have some of the most challenging tasks in a processing facility. Cleaning food processing facilities can be hot, wet, and dangerous work. These team members often toil on the midnight shift, with little feedback from management other than when cleaning deficiencies result in late-line startups or when environmental monitoring results are unacceptable. Despite this lack of feedback, these teams persist in their efforts. They are crucial to ensuring food safety in a facility. Without a competent sanitation effort, the clean equipment and hygienic environment necessary to produce safe food cannot be assured.
Do engaged, informed, and empowered sanitation teams act as predictors of success for an IPM program? The authors believe so. The success of an IPM program depends on everyone maintaining vigilance in their efforts to quickly identify and eliminate pest activity. Imagine having a sanitation team that can be relied upon to manage existing risks and help identify new ones—a sanitation team that, because of its food safety risk management behaviors, dramatically reduces the potential of product contamination due to pest activity in the facility.
What is Integrated Pest Management?
As defined in the U.S. Code, IPM is "a sustainable approach to managing pests by combining biological, cultural, physical, and chemical tools in a way that minimizes economic, health, and environmental risks."1
In a 2021 Food Safety Magazine article, Duane Grassmann further explains the application of an IPM. He writes, "Facilities that operate a robust IPM program have the attitude that taking a holistic approach to pest prevention pays greater dividends than solely reacting to pests when they appear. They own the IPM program and are in partnership with the Pest Management Professional (PMP). These facilities embrace and utilize strategies and programs that:
- Have multiple layers of protection to keep pests away from the property, out of the building, and away from the sensitive areas inside the facility.
- Ensure everyone (facility personnel, contractors, and visitors) knows their role in IPM."2
The Link Between Sanitation and IPM
Uncontrolled pest activity in a food facility represents an imminent risk to a company's products. Rats, mice, birds, flies, cockroaches, and other pests can introduce dangerous pathogens to the food processing environment and pose a source of ongoing contamination (Figure 1). Just cleaning a facility is not enough. The sanitation team is a frontline defense against these hazards by eliminating ongoing sources of food, water, and pest harboring and breeding locations.
Jeff Weier, a 50-year veteran of the pest control industry, comments: "When you have a pest issue, the ultimate solution is to eliminate the reasons that the pests are there. That's how you solve the pest problem permanently. While pesticides are temporary solutions, they are often necessary. In cases where permanent changes are not possible, pesticides may be needed on an ongoing basis. But you need to understand that the real solution to that problem is to understand why that pest is there. Where is their food, their water, their shelter? Why is that cockroach there? Why are those flies in that building? That's important to know. We found out we could reduce pesticide applications and reduce pest activity by having our clients invest some of that money saved due to reduced use of pesticides back into their sanitation efforts. That's a great way to bring in IPM. Sanitation is a key component. It is pest control. It is one of the basic foundations. You can't do pest control without sanitation."3
How Does Company Culture Impact the Sanitation Team?
It is important to recognize that the sanitation team is often isolated from normal channels of communication. Assumptions cannot be made about this team based on general culture assessments of the workforce. They often operate in isolation, with limited interactions with other departments and personnel.
Sanitation teams often have cultural norms associated with a lower level of maturity, described as Stage 1 or Stage 2 on the Cultivate Maturity Model.4 Stage 1 is defined as "doubt," where most food safety actions are taken due to external pressures (e.g., regulatory action). Stage 2 is "react," where most food safety problems are solved by the quality department and mostly to close gaps and remove issues. A sanitation team at this level of maturity comprises individuals who are motivated to complete tasks largely by the fear of negative consequences. These individuals take direction from their supervisors with little understanding of the reasons behind such actions. These norms lead to disengagement from food safety goals, including the goals of the IPM program.
A disengaged sanitation team can contribute to pest problems in a facility in several ways. Mr. Weier observes: "Certainly, problematic practices such as leaving doors open at night can contribute to pest ingress. I think one of the biggest problems with sanitation is that they often don't clean deeply enough. They do a superficial job, and that's it. Pests will harbor and multiply in those conditions. The biggest sanitation issues are the situations where people say, 'oh, I can't do that, we don't have time for that.' And sometimes you must make time for it. I had a small meat packing client. They were making steaks and other cuts, and they had fly issues. I opened up the housing of a bandsaw, and there were filth fly maggots living in the accumulated meat fragments. So, you can imagine how long that bandsaw had not been properly cleaned. Beyond the pest issues, think of the microbiological hazards associated with that situation."3
After cleaning has been completed in a room, it is common to come back later and discover that the rodent trapping devices have been left out of position. This could be due to a lack of care or not enough attention to detail. However, it is more likely that the individuals doing the cleaning do not understand the function of the devices and are unaware of the need to have the entrances to the traps unobstructed and aligned with the wall perimeter. It is key that these individuals be fully trained, that they can recognize and understand the signs of pest ingress or activity in the facility, and that they respond accordingly (Figure 2).
IPM requires that everyone knows and understands their roles and responsibilities in pest management in the facility. A robust, maturing culture on your sanitation team ensures that everyone takes those responsibilities seriously and embraces their roles.
Tactics to Mature Culture and Sanitation Practices
Many food processing companies have worked to understand and improve their overall food safety culture, particularly since Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI)-benchmarked audit schemes have added this requirement. However, few have specifically looked at the sanitation team and what happens in the middle of the night. A few tactics to consider are detailed below. Note that not all of them may be appropriate for your facility, as every plant and sanitation team has unique qualities that must be considered when planning engagement with this vital crew.
Assess the Current Situation
It is important to gauge the current state of your plant culture and how it impacts your sanitation team. Confidential one-on-one interviews, focus groups, surveys, and inclusive team meetings offer opportunities to assess the current state of the culture of your frontline sanitation team. What current "norms" need to be changed to better manage the sanitation team and your IPM efforts? Norms are those informal, unwritten rules that tend to impact behavior far more than the written Sanitation Standard Operation Procedures (SSOPs). Also, you will want to ask yourself what current norms are working well on this team.
Define IPM as a Key Component of the Company's Values and Mission
Tie your IPM program into your company's stated food safety, sustainability, and environmental stewardship goals. Set up a strong rhythm of communicating these goals throughout your organization, from the top to the frontline.
Commit to Frontline Empowerment
One of the key identifying characteristics of a maturing culture is an increasingly empowered frontline workforce in all departments of your organization, including the sanitation team. Define and assign key IPM responsibilities to these sanitation teams and develop SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) goals for them. Add IPM as a regular topic for your routine frontline meeting agendas. Debrief the sanitation team on the reports and recommendations from your pest control contractor, especially those issues related to sanitation deficiencies. Train your frontline teams to conduct root cause analyses, and task them with ongoing improvements in sanitation related to IPM.
Mr. Weier observes, "As a pest control company, you're there once a week, maybe twice a month. Their people are there every single day, and they're going to see things that we're not. So, if we can train the staff to see what we're seeing, it's all about once you know what to look for, you will find them. The key with rodents and insects is to catch them early, before they become a huge problem; that will give you a much better chance of controlling it."3
Gemba (現場) is a Japanese term for "actual place." Gemba walks involve taking key members of management into your facility on a routine frequency to facilitate awareness of current challenges and allow for nimble decision-making.
Schedule Gemba walks that are solely focused on IPM issues and hotspots, with top-level leaders and the frontline supervisors of the sanitation teams. The visibility of these activities will help communicate the importance of IPM to the frontline employees.
Break Down Silos
IPM depends on strong cooperation between various functional groups, including sanitation, maintenance, production, shipping and receiving, and others. Any barriers to communication or unhealthy competition for resources between departments can be detrimental to efforts to limit pest activity.
Schedule routine, cross-functional discussions between people working at all levels of the organization, especially those on the frontline. It is important for people to have understanding and respect for the work being done throughout the organization, and to be awarded that same level of respect for the jobs they do.
Detailed Training on Pest Identification and Understanding Pest Signs
It is critical that the sanitation team receives robust training in pest identification for all species of insects, rodents, birds, and other pests that could potentially enter the facility.
In terms of pest signs, Mr. Weier notes, "You need to look at where you might see some chewing in insulation or in the walls of a building. There are little things to look for. We want people to know what those grease marks from rodents look like. What does the chewing look like? Rodents don't need a giant hole. It's not going to be the big U-shaped mouse hole that you see in the cartoons. They're very small openings, and they're often in hidden areas."3
The sanitation team routinely gets into areas that are not frequently trafficked or inspected. If the team has received effective training, it can help identify early warning signs of any new activity and allow controls to be put in place before a full-blown infestation occurs (Figure 3).
Identify and Address Language Gaps
Communications with employees on your sanitation team who have limited language skills can be a challenge, but those difficulties can never be an excuse. It is imperative that in-depth training be provided in the various languages needed to ensure full comprehension of the IPM and sanitation programs by all team members.
Choose your Contractors Wisely
Partner with a strong pest management company that has the training resources available to support your IPM program. If utilizing a third-party sanitation firm, understand that it is your responsibility to foster a strong food safety culture on that team. If using a temporary employment agency, it is still your responsibility to develop and continually improve the culture experienced by the employees who are temporarily assigned to your facility.
Provide Ongoing Training on How to Effectively Clean to Control Pests
Mr. Weier advises training the sanitation team with IPM in mind. "What do you actually want them to clean? How in-depth do they need to go? Two red flour beetles can go from egg to adult on one grain of wheat; it is all the nutrition they need. I tell people that they need to think about teaspoons of material, not buckets. To inhibit pest populations, the plant must be really clean. I think that's a very important point to make about sanitation and its role in IPM. It is not the big spills that cause the problems. It is the little, tiny amounts that accumulate in cracks and crevices on the equipment and the building structure" (Figure 4).
"Companies that spend more time on sanitation will solve more issues," Mr. Weier continues. "We have to teach the sanitation team what we mean when we say, 'clean this area better.' We have to show them what we mean. People often do not understand why they need to clean this, or what 'clean' even means. For example, we need to show them that when you go into a warehouse, you need to clean the dust out of the rack legs and clean the cracks in the floor. All that stuff is critically important to controlling pest populations."3
Facilitate Risk Awareness
Beyond some of the issues discussed here, it is essential to empower frontline sanitation workers to be continually scanning their environments for developing risks. For example, if someone is wet-washing a room and notices that the water is disappearing into unknown void spaces rather than into the floor drains, we want them to understand that unmonitored pooling water could become an environment for rampant pest breeding. When a team is empowered and rewarded for their risk awareness, we have a much more food-safe plant and products.
How many high-profile food safety problems are caused by pest activity? It is hard to know. Mr. Weier comments, "When I hear of a large food recall due to Salmonella or Listeria or other pathogens, my mind automatically goes to what pests might have been involved. Was this caused by flies or other insects? Was it birds? Was it rodents? So many of the foodborne pathogens can be transmitted by these pests."3 By increasing risk awareness, perhaps you can avoid this pain for your facility.
Uncontrolled pest activity in a food facility represents an imminent risk to your products. Your sanitation team is uniquely positioned within your organization to help identify and control these hazards. They often work overnight, when the plant is quieter, allowing for greater scrutiny of the environment for these pests. They clean the areas that are less trafficked, again giving them a unique advantage. Their cleaning activities are a vital part of IPM, removing the food sources that can support pest populations.
What can we do today to empower and engage the sanitation team?
- Work to establish IPM responsibilities at every level of the organization, from the top managers to the frontline. Devise unique roles for the sanitation team, recognizing their importance for controlling these pest hazards.
- Arrange for your pest control contractor to meet routinely with your sanitation team and provide guidance and training.
- Celebrate each and every milestone as you work to mature your culture, particularly on the sanitation team.
A fully engaged and empowered sanitation team will help you exclude pest-borne threats to food safety from your facility. It is a task critical for ensuring safe, high-quality foods.
- U.S. Code, 7 § 136r-1: "Integrated Pest Management." https://www.govinfo.gov/app/details/USCODE-2021-title7/USCODE-2021-title7-chap6-subchapII-sec136r-1/summary.
- Grassmann, Duane. "Integrated Pest Management in Food Manufacturing Facilities." Food Safety Magazine. February 26, 2021. https://www.food-safety.com/articles/6996-integrated-pest-management-in-food-manufacturing-facilities.
- John Boyce. Interview with Jeff Weier. Conducted May 22, 2023.
- Cultivate LLC. "Our Models: Cultivate Maturity Model." 2023. https://www.cultivatefoodsafety.com/our-models.
John Boyce has over 40 years of experience in various aspects of food production, food safety, quality assurance, sanitation, training, and auditing. He spent 25 years with Trident Seafoods, starting as a crab fisherman and then working in roles in plant management, corporate human resources, regulatory compliance, national account sales, food safety, and quality assurance, and then as Director of Training and Development for the company. He spent four years with Diversey, supporting sanitation teams, and eight years with AIB International, conducting food safety audits around the world. John is now an independent food safety consultant based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He enjoys working with clients to help them ensure food-safe products. He is also an expert partner at Cultivate SA for assessing and changing food safety culture in food businesses.
Jeff Weier, B.C.E., is a Board-Certified Entomologist with nearly 50 years of experience in the pest control industry. He currently works as an independent consultant, and is also a mentor to the technical services team of the pest solutions company from which he retired in 2020. Jeff is known in the industry for his innovative approach to designing and implementing pest control programs, as well as his extensive client and institutional knowledge.
Lone Jespersen, Ph.D., is Principal at Cultivate, an organization dedicated to helping food manufacturers globally make safe, great-tasting food through cultural effectiveness. She has significant experience with food manufacturing, having previously spent 11 years with Maple Leaf Foods. Dr. Jespersen is also a member of the Food Safety Magazine Editorial Advisory Board.
Bob Lijana, M.Sc., has held director- and VP-level positions in food safety, quality, and operations for over 35 years at companies producing ready-to-eat foods, prepared meals, and pasteurized juices. He has a B.Sc. and an M.Sc. in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California–Berkeley, respectively.