Handling an Illness or Injury when Working at a Food Business

Food Handlers who continue to work with food when sick or injured can cause a food-borne illness outbreak.
March 8, 2022

Food Handlers must always follow high standards of personal hygiene. If they don’t follow proper hygiene protocols such as washing hands properly, wearing the correct work attire or letting their manager know when they’re sick, they run the risk of causing a food-borne illness outbreak in their place of business.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only emphasized how crucial it is to follow proper hygiene practices and limit contact with other people when sick. For food businesses, it’s imperative that every step is taken to help prevent the spread of food-borne illness and other contagious illnesses.

Don’t work with food when you’re experiencing these illnesses

Food Handlers should avoid working with food when experiencing certain illnesses and injuries because harmful bacteria can be transferred onto the food they’re working with and cause a food-borne illness outbreak. Even if you don’t work with food directly, you might contaminate equipment, surfaces and other Food Handlers.

Notify your manager and stop working immediately if you’re experiencing any of the following illnesses.

Food-borne Illness
This illness is caused by consuming contaminated foods or beverages — which is what you want to prevent from happening to your customers! Even if you’re only feeling mild symptoms, you can easily contaminate food and cause a food-borne illness outbreak in your business.

Symptoms of food-borne illness include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, headaches, stomach cramps, fever, gas, bloating and belching.

Gastroenteritis
Also commonly referred to as the “stomach flu,” gastroenteritis is the inflammation of the stomach and intestinal lining. It’s not always caused by food-related illness and many types of bacteria, viruses and parasites can be the culprit behind gastroenteritis. Some of the most common causes of gastroenteritis are norovirus, Campylobacter, E. coli and Salmonella.

Symptoms of gastroenteritis include diarrhea, vomiting and stomach cramps.

Colds & Flu
Don’t handle food if you’re suffering from a fever, sore throat, cough, runny nose or other cold and flu symptoms. If you have mild symptoms, you may still be able to perform other tasks that don’t involve working with food, though it’s important that you never come in to work with a communicable disease if you serve vulnerable persons such as the elderly, children under five years old, pregnant women and immunocompromised people.

Hepatitis A
This highly contagious liver infection is spread from person to person after putting something in the mouth that is contaminated with feces containing the hepatitis A virus. In a food business, it can be easily spread when Food Handlers don’t wash their hands properly before handling foods and drinks.

A person can be contagious one to two weeks before symptoms even start, and these symptoms can last for one to two weeks. Symptoms include nausea, fever, stomach pain, dark-coloured urine and jaundice. Due to its highly contagious nature, Food Handlers should be excused from working for at least two weeks after the onset of clinical symptoms.

Other Diseases
If you’ve been diagnosed with the following, you should also avoid working with food:

  • Typhoid: a bacterial infection often passed through contaminated food and water that can lead to high fever, diarrhea, vomiting and even death
  • Tuberculosis: an infectious disease that affects the lungs and spreads from person to person through tiny droplets in the air from coughing and sneezing
  • Cholera: an acute diarrheal illness caused by an intestinal infection by the Vibrio cholerae bacteria that is spread through consumption of contaminated food or water

What is an asymptomatic carrier?

A person who carries a virus while not feeling or showing any symptoms is called an asymptomatic carrier. Even though a person feels no symptoms, they can still pass the virus on to other people and cause a food-borne illness outbreak.

Notify your manager and contact your doctor if you’ve been in contact with anyone who has a contagious illness.

Can you work with food while injured?

Having an injury doesn’t always mean that you have to miss work, though it’s crucial that you don’t let any cuts, sores or boils come into contact with food while working.

To help prevent food contamination while working with an injury, always:

  • Use clean, good-quality bandages and dressings (bright-coloured bandages and dressings are helpful as they can be easily seen if they accidentally fall into food or get lost)
  • Replace bandages and dressings frequently
  • Wear waterproof disposable gloves over bandaged cuts and sores

Sometimes, accidents can happen in the workplace — especially if you’re working with knives and other sharp utensils or equipment.

Take the following steps if you cut yourself at work:

  • Stop working right away
  • Get the wound treated or seek further medical attention
  • Throw away any food you were working with or may have contaminated
  • Clean and sanitize all surfaces and equipment you’ve touched
  • Let your manager know so that any other corrective actions can be implemented if required

Still unsure about whether or not to go to work when sick or injured? Use the Canadian Institute of Food Safety’s (CIFS) Employee Illness/Injury Decision Chart to help determine if it’s safe for you to work with food, and what steps you need to take when experiencing illness symptoms.

How should owners and supervisors manage sick employees?

It’s important that food business owners, managers and supervisors actively foster a positive working environment so that employees feel comfortable letting the management team know about illnesses and injuries that could prevent them from working.

If a team member has notified you of a condition that may cause food-borne illness in others, or if you suspect that a staff member may be sick and should not be working with food, take the following steps:

  1. Determine how serious the condition is.
  2. Restrict the employee from working with food. If symptoms pose a serious threat to food safety, such as diarrhea, stomach cramps, vomiting and jaundice, the employee should not be allowed on the food premises.
  3. Manage possible contamination by discarding any food that the employee may have come into contact with while sick and do not serve any food that may have been handled by the employee. Thoroughly clean and sanitize all surfaces, equipment and utensils they may have used.
  4. Work with medical specialists and the local authorities to minimize the risk of a food-borne illness outbreak. Employees with hepatitis A, jaundice or a food-borne illness should be reported to your local authorities so that they can implement the appropriate public health measures. If an employee’s illness poses a serious threat to food safety, or if you serve high-risk customer groups, work with the local authorities and the employee’s medical practitioner to determine when the employee is safe to return to work.

Remember that certain steps need to be taken when someone in your food business may have been exposed to COVID-19. Learn how to deal with sick employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those who work in a food business have legal responsibilities to make sure that the food they prepare and serve is safe to eat. Practising good personal hygiene involves following proper workplace behaviour, and avoiding handling food when sick is just one factor!

The CIFS Guide to Personal Hygiene for Food Handlers provides comprehensive information about how to ensure a safe and hygienic working environment in your food business, and our nationally recognized Food Handler Certification Course provides the food safety training Food Handlers need to help prevent food-borne illness outbreaks. Contact us to learn more.