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Just a Cold or Stomach Bug? What To Do When You Are Ill and Work With Food

food poisoning

When you are working in a kitchen, food production, or food retail area, you sometimes literally have the health of the people who eat your food in your hands. The hands that you use to touch the food you make could pass on some pretty nasty bugs, and, while this can produce some unpleasant symptoms for everyone, for the elderly or children it could result in serious illness.

Clearly, then, it is important that you minimise the risk of passing along any infection you may have to your consumers, but that doesn’t mean you need to lock yourself in a cupboard at the first sneeze. Although, it would be better if that sneeze was directed away from the food, please.

Making the decision to go to work or not, and what precautions to take if you do, will come down to common sense and, of course, your own level of sickness. So, you will need to assess yourself and decide what you need to do. If you work in a managed food preparation environment such as a production facility, then your supervisor will help you to make the decision. For everyone else, here are a few common sense things you can do to prevent infections spreading:

  • Don’t be a hero! It is easy, particularly if you run the business, to put your sickness aside and work anyway. While it is never good practice to work when you are ill because it will usually make you feel worse, for a food preparation worker this is simply not acceptable. The chances are that you will spread your bugs to a lot of other people, so please stay home or arrange cover.
  • Bacteria love hands! Washing and more washing is always the best option for you. While some viruses, such as norovirus (see below), are very difficult to deal with, a good washing regime will stop most bacteria spreading.
  • Coughs and sneezes spread diseases – well, sometimes they do. Although a cold and similar illness is unlikely to spread through the food you make, a sneeze or a cough can carry other infections such as Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause a range of infections from boils to pneumonia that can spread.
  • Norovirus must be stopped as soon as possible! Any of the following symptoms should trigger an immediate ban from the food preparation area. If vomiting occurs near food then the area will need disinfecting immediately and all food must be destroyed. As a worker, if you have (or start to develop) these symptoms then do not work with food until you have assessed what is causing them. The potential for spreading norovirus is very high, and remains so quite a while after the disease has apparently passed, so you should remain away from work for 48 hours after the symptoms have stopped.
    • Vomiting
    • Diarrhoea
    • Stomach cramps
    • Nausea and fever
  • Skin infections and eye issues! Some infections, such as boils, infected wounds and scaling conditions, do not preclude a worker from continuing to prepare food as long as the affected area can be covered in a way that means the chance of infection is reduced to a safe level. However, any area that cannot be covered, such as eyes and noses, are a danger, and the person demonstrating symptoms must not work with food.

Eyes, noses and ears (along with the other bits of the body that shouldn’t be touched around food) are sources of infection, and contact with them should trigger hand washing. This will help keep the risk of infection down.

It is also worth remembering that some things, such as morning sickness, the side effects of medicine and a good old fashioned self-inflicted hangover, do not necessarily preclude the worker as long as appropriate washing and other precautions take place.

We cannot cover everything in a short article like this, but the sources and ways of preventing transmission are covered in a food hygiene course. There is a link to the Food Standards Agency guidelines below that expands on the above and gives further advice.

If in doubt – stay out of the kitchen.