Recently, I was asked to speak at a sanitary design training session. One of the topics on my agenda piqued my interest: “Why is cleaning so hard?” Given a minute to digest it, I found this question challenging. What would I say to engage the audience and leave them with an enhanced understanding and knowledge of sanitation, sanitary design and a link to food safety?
Having personally worked with legacy equipment and facilities, I know from experience that not only are some equipment and facilities hard to clean, but some sanitors may describe it as an impossible task. Upon reflection, I realized this question offered a perfect opportunity to explain the challenges associated with cleaning.
Before I offered examples, I communicated that the ultimate obstacle to effective and efficient cleaning is poor design. Other common challenges include inexperienced sanitors, personnel who don’t really want to be in sanitation and high absenteeism. Sanitation also can be hampered by not having the correct tools, a lack of sanitation standard operating procedures and poor utilities that are unable to provide hot water or compressed air as needed.
These are real challenges, and if I came to work every day with the glass half empty, as it appears with the negatives above, I would not be in sanitation. While there are challenges in sanitation, I do believe in excellence in sanitation. Here is how it is best described:
• Facilities and equipment designed for efficient and effective cleaning
• Being technical professionals and business partners
• Effective processes with continuous improvement
• Motivated, skilled and innovative sanitation employees
• Safe working environment for employees
• Maximization of asset and capacity use
• Flexibility in scheduling, both processes and personnel
• Being environmentally responsible
• Unimpeachable product integrity and food safety.
To be effective and efficient with cleaning, you need skilled, passionate people who live a culture of doing work perfectly. Effectiveness ensures a clean surface, which will pass a pre-op inspection; efficiency gets it done on time. Without passionate people who work hard, this will not happen.
To communicate the challenges of cleaning and why it is hard, I provided examples from the front line of food safety. This offered a glimpse to the challenges encountered as we strive for perfection.
In the hunt for productivity and extra cash, a plant outsourced its sanitation department. The current crew was experienced, effective and efficient. Its excellent programs made cleaning look easy. A contract cleaner touted its “core competency” in sanitation and the cost savings. The contract company was given a one-month trial, but because of inexperience of supervision and labor, it failed. Over time, the contract company would have learned to clean, but the plant decided to keep the program in-house. Cleaning is hard work, and it takes experience and continual practice to be perfect. The existing crew worked hard and made it look effortless.
Years ago, when I was a sanitation supervisor, my boss left a note about a tour scheduled for Monday morning. “No problem,” I thought as I read the note. “We can make the plant shine.” Little did I know that six of the 12 scheduled workers would be absent. Even with the absenteeism, we accomplished the task by replacing two of the missing six with folks from the earlier shift. We worked hard for 12 hours and were proud of the work we completed.
Then there are the little things that seem easy to do, such as cleaning floor drains. I’ve seen many soiled drains post cleaning due to the ineffective application of procedures. Effective drain cleaning is an art and practiced by too few. It takes a disciplined approach, correct detergency, mechanical action and timing to avoid cross contamination of other areas. Seems easy, but try it.
Then there’s the pressure of getting it right. Food safety begins on the plant floor with sanitation. If you have marginal sanitation programs and ineffective cleaning execution, you put food at the risk of not being food safety perfect.
Why is cleaning so difficult? I would say because it takes a scientifically valid procedure rigorously followed, the right tools, talented and trained people, and a professional approach.
At times the industry underestimates, and in some cases undervalues, professional sanitarians. In reality, the people who make cleaning look easy need the respect and attention of an organization. It is hard to clean, and we should recognize those who make it appear easy as the true champions of food safety.