In a research article published in the February, 2011 edition of Journal of Food Protection, a survey was conducted among foodservice workers that found that about 12% said that they had come to work while sick, suffering from symptoms such as diarrhea or vomiting. This is alarming in that these people could have potentially spread disease to the people who consume the foods their establishments were serving. Foodborne pathogens such as Norovirus, Hepatitis A, and Shigella are often spread by sick workers to the restaurant patrons through the food.
In July of 2009, a worker in Illinois continued to work at an Illinois fast food restaurant chain after she had been diagnosed with Hepatitis A. In the week that she worked, she had potentially exposed up to 10,000 people to the virus. Even though many of these patrons immediately went to get vaccinated when the news story was released, 20 patrons who had not became ill with that virus.
Why do people still go to work while ill? One issue is that many workers as well as their managers don’t fully understand the implications of foodborne illness, either on their patrons, or on the business where they work. When an employee calls in sick and the restaurant is really busy, it is often the case that the employee is told to come to work anyway.
Another reason is that these are hard economic times and with so many people work paycheck to paycheck, it is financially difficult for those people to stay home from work. They need the money so they come into work and try to hide the fact that they are ill. I also think that many look at working while sick as a badge of courage. They have this need to “tough it out”. In reality, these folks may be doing far more harm than good.
It is important when someone has the symptoms of diarrhea, vomiting, or jaundice that they stay away from the workplace, and if they have a sore throat and fever, they should be restricted from preparing and serving food. Retail and foodservice establishments must make sure that employees know that when ill, they should not be working with food. At the very least, they should contact their managers and inform them of their illnesses.
It is important that managers include this as part of employee training, both when employees are new and then regularly after that as a reminder. Managers should also be observant of their employees, looking out for any of these symptoms. If illness is suspected, the employee should be sent home immediately. After that, it is important to follow-up with the sick employee so that if it is indeed a foodborne pathogen, the manager will need to contact the local health department.
This recommendations are not just for the foodservice or retail food establishments, but also important for those who prepare food for their families, or those who work in childcare or elderly care facilities, and in food processing. Children and elderly are especially susceptible to foodborne illness, so we need to take extra precautions when working with these groups.