Personal Hygiene

Don't be a source of contamination

Food contaminated by people is a frequent source of food poisoning outbreaks. Maintaining good personal hygiene of food handlers is therefore an important food safety topic. In this section we look at:

Importance of appropriate hand washing

Hand washing is critical to food safety and is often over-looked. We explore why and how to ensure hands are being washed appropriately.

Sickness and the 48-hour rule

When staff members are ill we need to make sure they do not pass it onto customers.

Clothing and staying clean

We need to make sure we are providing our food handlers with the right clothing and make sure we keep them clean whilst working. We look at toilet facilities and having somewhere clean to get changed.

Importance of appropriate hand washing

I talk about "appropriate" hand washing, because it’s not just about regularly washing your hands; you must think about when it is necessary to wash your hands.

Food Safety Top Tip

When testing food samples, the most common contamination found is bacteria that indicates the food is contaminated with poo! When testing ice machines in coffee shops, they found most were contaminated with urine! What does this mean? It means people are not washing their hands correctly!

Hand washing is a vital food safety control that is not being effectively implemented across all types of food businesess. Make sure you learn the importance of appropriate hand washing and put it into practice.

When we touch things our hands can become contaminated with all sorts of things. It might be a food ingredient, grease, chemicals, saliva, blood, poo, urine, bacteria; all sorts of things! What we do not want to do is then contaminate our kitchen with these things and certainly not the food we are going to be serving to the customers. So we need to use our brain…

If we go to the toilet we must wash our hands; that’s fairly easy to understand – yet so many people do not do it. But we also have to think about when we go outside; maybe we touch a shed door, or have a cigarette. How about when we touch door handles, or run our fingers through our hair? When we have something to eat? All of these are ways our hands can become contaminated and we need to wash them before we get back to work in the kitchen or start handling food.

Within the kitchen we need to think about when we have used cleaning chemicals, or maybe touched a storage delivery box, or had to scratch our nose or hair. We must be very careful with handling raw foods (meats, unwashed root vegetables) and then touching other things; otherwise we can pass the bacteria from the raw food on to ready-to-eat foods, or spread it around the kitchen onto light switches, door handles, etc.

So, when I say we need to use our brain, we really do! We need to have an awareness of when we do something that might contaminate our hands. If we have contaminated our hands, we need to wash them!

Once you get used to doing this it becomes second nature, it’s just like learning to walk or talk; it becomes natural and you do not even think about it. But it takes hard work to get to this point.

Food Safety Top Tip

A good EHO will stand back and watch how staff members operate in the kitchen. A really good EHO will do this without you even realising, as they’ll be multi-tasking and doing other things at the same time. One of the things they’ll be watching for is hand washing!

They will be checking when staff members wash their hands, and looking out for times where they obviously should. The simplest one is when anyone enters the kitchen. Outside the kitchen is not controlled and so automatically it is considered dirty. Every person entering a kitchen must wash their hands straight away! Fail to do so and it’s an easy way to lose your five star rating before the inspection has even started.

How to wash your hands

    Hand washing is not just running some water over our hands and carrying on. This is not effective and will be pulled up by the EHO. Effective hand washing requires:

  1. Wetting hands before applying soap! This is to enable the soap to properly lather over the hands and activate the soap.
  2. Thoroughly rubbing hands to remove any dirt, grease or debris.
  3. Rinsing the soap and any remaining contamination off the hands.
  4. Drying hands thoroughly. If hands are still wet and any contamination is present, the water on the hands becomes the perfect vehicle for spreading the pathogens.
  5. Hand sanitising gels are not effective as a replacement for hand washing. They cannot effectively remove visible dirt as warm water and soap can. You can use them as an additional barrier on top of your normal hand washing, but never as a substitute.

Gloves are not a substitute for hand washing

This requires a section by itself even though it is a quick and simple point to make. The reason it requires a section to itself is that too many food handlers get this wrong and they cannot seem to understand why it is an issue. So, let’s be clear, gloves are not a substitute for hand washing. Using them as such is an easy way to stop you getting a five star food hygiene rating.

If you decide to use gloves in the kitchen, you still need to wash your hands as you would if you were not wearing gloves. You will need to replace the gloves whenever you would normally wash your hands. The reason for this is simple; gloves become contaminated just like your hands do.

Food safety isn’t about trying to keep your hands clean, it’s about preventing your hands becoming a source of cross contamination. You can’t wash gloves, so they will need to go in the bin once contaminated. You can’t just replace the gloves and not wash your hands in between, because you can’t prevent yourself touching the outside of gloves as you take them off and put them on, potentially transferring contamination between the two pairs. Contamination may have occurred around the wrist areas too, which is not covered by the gloves and therefore requires washing also.

You may still wish to use them for a variety of reasons, e.g. to make the task of mixing ingredients less mucky, or to reduce even further the risk of cross contamination by using them as an additional barrier when handling raw meat. However, hopefully it is clear, gloves are not a substitute for hand washing.

Sickness and the 48-hour rule

If a member of staff is ill, they potentially have the ability to pass it on to the customers. As the food business operator, you must have a policy in place whereby staff members inform you immediately if they are unwell.

You will then need to determine if the illness is likely to be transmittable and therefore if they need to be excluded from going anywhere near food or areas where food might be handled.

Food Safety Top Tip

If anyone – a customer or staff member – is sick in your food premises, you must take immediate action to clear it up. Sodium hypochlorite (bleach) disinfectants are best where it is possible to use them. Otherwise, steaming is recommended.

Some viruses, such as Norovirus, are notoriously difficult to kill, highly infectious and spread like wildfire around the premises. You have no idea when someone is sick whether it is Norvirus or not. You must therefore clean as if it is Norovirus!

Norovirus outbreaks are becoming fairly common and usually result in 10s of people becoming unwell. Not only does this involve a serious investigation by the EHO, but may also be followed up by litigation claims from unhappy customers, never mind all those terrible Trip Advisor reviews. Save your food business and clean up properly when anyone is sick!

The typical exclusion time for a quick stomach bug is 48 hours symptom free. What this means is after you have stopped having your symptoms, e.g. vomiting and/or diarrhoea, you wait 48 hours before returning to work.

This is the fundamental, basic exclusion time and the EHO will expect you and any food handlers to be aware of it. More serious illnesses may require longer exclusion times, which can be assessed and identified through seeing the GP. A good indicator of when this may be necessary is if the symptoms persist for more than 48 hours.

If a member of staff has any of the following symptoms, they should be excluded: vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach upset, infected wounds or skin infections that cannot be adequately covered.

Food Safety Top Tip

Personal hygiene is vital for safe food. Food handlers need to be aware of what they are wearing, to ensure clothing is not dirty. They need to consider if they have any cuts or wounds that might lead to contamination of food. Do they have any jewellery, fake nails or eyelashes, nail varnish, etc., that might come off and contaminate food? How are they going to prevent their hair falling into food?

Food handlers also need to be aware of habits that may spread bacteria, such as biting nails, blowing their nose, coughing or licking their fingers. All of these factors can lead to a food business not getting a five star food hygiene rating and need to be considered!

Clothing and staying clean

When dealing with food staff need to be wearing clean and protective clothing. You cannot just wear your outdoor clothing, because you have little control over what might be on your outdoor clothing! Chef whites exist as they can be worn just in the kitchen and it is obvious when they become dirty and need to be changed.

Clean clothing isn’t just a visual thing though, you need to be aware of cross contamination risks associated with clothing as well. If you undertake messy work with raw foods, such as chopping up meat or mincing burgers, you may get splashed with harmful micro-organisms. You therefore may need to change your clothes mid-shift or have a separate apron for the raw food prep.

You need to have somewhere clean and away from food for food handlers to get changed. Think about where you keep all your clothing and don’t allow them to get mixed up. It’s pointless having a separate clean apron for food preparation if you sling your outdoor clothes or raw meat apron on the same hook. You’ll just contaminate them all!

Food Safety Top Tip

EHOs have to deal with far too many complaints of food handlers stood outside the back door, in their chef whites, smoking a cigarette. There are a plethora of ways smoking can contaminate a food handler, from touching the cigarette with their hands, to getting smoke and ash on their clothes. If food handlers need to smoke, take off protective clothing beforehand and make sure hands are washed when going back to work.

Adequate toilet facilities

There are two parts to remember when considering toilet facilities for food handlers. There are the basic requirements of providing toilet facilities that are connected to a drainage system, have a nearby hand wash basin, that everything is operating correctly and is clean.

Then there are the considerations of how a toilet may cause a food safety issue. Toilets cannot open directly into a room where food is handled. You must have a lobby (intervening space). They also have to be suitably ventilated to prevent offensive aerosols and odours travelling from toilets into food rooms. Where possible, keep the customer and staff toilets separate.

    Poor toilets facilities regularly lead to food businesses not getting a five star food hygiene rating. Examples that have been found include:

  1. A toilet located in a cubicle in the middle of a kebab takeaway kitchen. Any particles in the air will be floating over kebab meat and salad, not to mention the staff had no way of washing their hands after doing their business.
  2. A customer toilet in a cafe opening next to the food counter, with wafts of faeces drifting over the food and customers sitting down to enjoy their coffee getting a nice lungful each time the door opens.
  3. A toilet having excrement splashed over the walls. I think this one needs no further comment...
  4. A toilet with no running water to the wash hand basin, leaving staff unable to wash their hands.
  5. Toilets with no soap and no hot water, leaving staff unable to adequately clean their hands with just cold water.