Winter watch: Preventing colds, flu and foodborne illness

Winter watch: Preventing colds, flu and foodborne illness

It is almost winter, and the cold weather has arrived. Get ready because the change in temperature will cause colds and flu to occur. Here, Ashley Miller, one of our food safety experts, shares thoughts on what to do to prevent the spread of colds, flu and foodborne illness at your business:

Imagine this scenario. At a local restaurant, two employees are talking to each other in the back of the house. One says to the other:

“Ugh, I’m feeling awful today. I am burning up with a fever and have a sore throat. Plus, I was up all night throwing up. I must have caught the flu from my husband!”

Her co-worker responds, saying, “Gesh, did you tell the shift manager you aren’t feeling well? Maybe you can go home early?”

The sick employee says, “No! With the holidays around the corner, I can’t afford to miss any hours this week. I’ll just take some cold and flu meds at break and work through it. Don’t they always say, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?’ ”

Are you wondering how often this occurs at your restaurant? According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Restaurant managers and employees should work together to prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses. Creating a culture of open communication [so employees can] discuss possible symptoms and illnesses will help ensure that sick employees do not transmit foodborne pathogens to customers and other workers in the restaurant.”

What’s the takeaway? Employees must know which symptoms to report and when to do so, and managers need to ask relevant questions to determine whether an employee should handle food.

How can you help reinforce health practices that help employees prevent foodborne illness? Here are four tips to keep your employees and customers healthy and happy this winter season:

  1. Teach a handwashing refresher course. Germs from unwashed hands can get into food and drinks while people prepare or consume them. They also can multiply in certain foods or drinks under certain conditions, and make people sick. What should you do to prevent this from happening?
  • Keep your hands clean to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. Effective handwashing consists of scrubbing, rinsing, and complete drying of hands. That is essential for minimizing the likelihood of cross-contamination.
  • Fingernails and surrounding areas are often the most contaminated parts of the hand and also the most difficult to get clean. Every stage of handwashing is equally important and helps reduce contamination of the hands.
  • Give all employees quick handwashing refresher training. Keep in mind that one way food handlers learn best is through on-the-job, visual demonstration of the task. It takes a manager just 20 seconds to demonstrate the proper handwashing technique to the team. Training, coupled with frequent reinforcement of proper technique, is effective in keeping everyone healthy.
  • You can provide employees and customers with FDA approved hand sanitizer, but WATCH OUT! It is a great follow-up to hand washing, but does NOT replace handwashing. Apply hand sanitizer only AFTER proper handwashing has taken place.
  1. Remind all persons in charge of their responsibility as managers: Management must ensure that food handlers and “conditional” hires are aware of the reporting requirements for foodborne illness symptoms and diagnosis.
  • It may be uncomfortable talking to employees about illness symptoms, but keep in mind that laws such as HIPAA and ADA do not prohibit restaurant managers from asking employees about their symptoms or illnesses. It is the manager’s responsibility to ensure all employees are aware of the reporting requirement.
  • Employees should be most concerned about and report the following illness symptoms:
    • Vomiting
    • Diarrhea
    • Jaundice (yellow skin or eyes)
    • Sore throat with fever
    • Infected cuts and burns with pus on hands and wrists
  1. Report sick employees’ symptoms immediately. If one of your food handlers suffers from vomiting or diarrhea at work, make sure the employee stops working immediately, reports his or her symptoms to management and goes home. He or she should not return to work for at least 24 hours after those symptoms have ended. If the symptoms occur before the employee arrives to work, he or she should notify the manager by telephone; and not report to work until at least 24 hours have passed after the diarrhea and vomiting symptoms have ended. If one of your food handlers has a sore throat with fever, report the illness to the manager and, if possible, continue working, but remain aware that the manager should consider reassignment to a position that does not include the handling of food, food-contact equipment, utensils or single-service articles. If the employee works in a food establishment serving a highly susceptible population (HSP), such as a hospital, nursing home, assisted living facility or day-care center, the employee must stop working and go home until he or she obtains clearance from a health practitioner and presents it to the manager.
  1. Encourage employees to report symptoms that can cause foodborne illness. It is critical to build a strong food-safety culture in which employees feel comfortable reporting foodborne illness symptoms to management. This may include:
  • Frequent conversations in which management and employees discuss how to report symptoms as well as follow-up actions that help prevent the spread of foodborne illness
  • Placement of posters in prominent places to remind employees of their responsibility in reporting illnesses

Implement policies and procedures that allow employees to report symptoms easily. This could be a simple question regarding employee health during clock in or rotational on-call lists in the event someone needs to call out.

Source: National Restaurant Association