Now more than ever, Americans are eating meals at foodservice establishments. That means consumers are putting more trust in the hands of millions of employees who prepare our food. Not a bad thing considering that 87 percent of foodservice employees say they’d be willing to serve what they make to their own families. However, the recent landscape of the restaurant industry has been saturated with stories of well-known restaurant chains struggling with foodborne illness. You might ask how this is possible if the employees preparing food are confident in serving that same food to their families.
One reason is that employees don’t always understand how easily foodborne illness can spread. Norovirus—commonly referred to as “stomach flu”—is easily spread by hand-to-hand contact. It’s also the nation’s No.1 cause of foodborne-illness outbreaks from contaminated food. Combine that with a recent study that found that 51 percent of foodservice-industry workers report they “always” or “frequently” go to work when they’re sick, and you can understand why this is such a growing problem. But why are these employees coming to work despite being sick?
The top three reasons foodservice employees report to work when sick are: not wanting to let their co-workers down; not being able to afford losing pay; and not believing they are contagious.
Food-safety training is key to helping your employees understand the dangers of coming to work sick. You may not be able to provide paid sick leave to your employees, but you can explain the dangers of working while sick. One danger is getting other employees or guests sick; another is that the restaurant may need to close down, so all employees would not get paid. And then there’s the potential damage to your restaurant’s reputation.
Include information about preventing foodborne illness in every employee’s training. Explain the symptoms of norovirus to help employees understand when they might be spreading foodborne illness. Some classic symptoms about which to warn employees are diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, stomach pain, fever, headaches and body aches.
Have employees report any signs of illness to the person in charge, since they will need to be restricted or excluded from working with food.
Norovirus can spread quickly, most often by employees who touch ready-to-eat foods (such as raw fruits and vegetables) with their bare hands. Since the virus particles can live on surfaces such as door handles and light switches for up to two weeks, proper cleaning and sanitation is very important.
To prevent the spread of norovirus, emphasize these important practices with your employees:
- Practice proper hand hygiene; when and how to wash hands.
- Wash fruits and vegetables, especially ready-to-eat.
- Report any signs/symptoms of illness to management.
- Restrict or exclude sick employees from working with food.
- Do not serve food if you or anyone in your home is sick.
- Remember that a person is contagious for the first few days post-illness.
- Clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces. Use a chlorine bleach solution with a concentration of 1,000–5,000 ppm or other disinfectant registered as effective against norovirus by the Environmental Protection Agency.