Putting Your Employees on Defense Against Norovirus

Norovirus is one of the most common illnesses and your employees are key to preventing it from plaguing your school or healthcare organization.
Chef washing hands

Students, parents and teachers put their trust in the hands of millions of employees who prepare their food in school cafeterias and food courts across the country. Patients and senior living residents do the same in healthcare organizations. With that trust comes a responsibility to protect everyone they serve from the spread of diseases, especially norovirus.

Foodservice workers are often at the front lines when Norovirus strikes, as they can help control the spread of it. But the best defense is a good offense. Not all foodservice workers may be aware how quickly and easily the virus can spread or their role in stopping it from taking hold, so promoting understanding among employees is important. Even more important is educating them before norovirus hits your operation, so they can react proactively if and when it does strike.

Spread information to avoid spreading norovirus

Norovirus—commonly referred to as “stomach flu”—is easily passed on 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 norovirus is such a growing concern, especially in close quarters with lots of people, such as schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other healthcare facilities.

As part of their food-safety training, talk to your staff and drive home the dangers of coming to work sick. You may not be able to provide paid sick leave, but explaining the risks of working while ill could be enough to convince your crew it’s best to stay home. One danger to highlight is getting others sick; another is that the cafeteria may need to close down, so everyone could miss a paycheck or two. And then there’s the potential damage to your foodservice program’s reputation.

Include information about preventing the spread of illness in every employee’s training. Explain the symptoms of norovirus to help them understand when they might be contagious and at risk of spreading it. Common signs include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, stomach pain, fever, headaches and body aches. Ask employees to report any signs of illness to the person in charge, and restrict or exclude them from working with food or interacting with customers, residents or patients.

Practice proper cleanliness

Norovirus can spread quickly, often by employees who touch ready-to-eat foods (such as raw fruits and vegetables) with their bare hands. Plus, the virus particles can live on surfaces such as door handles and light switches for up to two weeks. This is where proper cleaning and sanitation come in. To prevent the spread of norovirus, emphasize these proven 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.

Arm your foodservice employees with the right knowledge and tools and the odds of preventing norovirus from becoming a major outbreak will be in your favor, keeping your foodservice operation a trusted favorite for all those you serve.

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