Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Employee Health as we head into the Winter Months

Early this month, I ran across an article discussing an outbreak investigation in the Australian Capital Territory. The outbreak caused more than 200 people to fall ill and was one of the most widespread outbreak investigations in the history of the territory.  The cause was traced back to Norovirus, a virus I am sure you have heard us opine about in this blog before.

The surprising thing was not the virus or the amount of people that fell ill, but the food involved was donuts, something we wouldn’t not necessarily think of as a potentially hazardous food. The source of the outbreak was believed to be an infected foodhandler who did not practice good personal hygiene and likely was not following proper procedures.

This case serves as an excellent reminder to us all, especially as we head into the winter months and a time when illnesses are expected to be at an all-time high this winter with the tripledemic that experts have been warning about.  These illnesses, coupled with the already short supply of workers that many of us are facing make the temptation to allow workers who may not be feeling the opportunity to work their normal shift.

Be sure to communicate to your employees the importance of following these protocols and that it not only keeps their peers safe, but their customers and the business, too.

As demonstrated by the Australian example, allowing employees to work who are ill or not feeling their best can have negative consequences for your business. No one died because of the contaminated donut they consumed, but of the 200-plus people who fell ill, two people were hospitalized. The financial impact to the business was not disclosed, but I am guessing it will be quite substantial.

Late last month in our blog, we discussed when to exclude or restrict employees from working in your establishment and I provided some resources that would help you decide when to exclude or restrict, but we didn’t really talk too much about symptoms that someone might exhibit.  In short, if an employee is vomiting or has diarrhea, let them stay home and closely follow health code recommendations on how long to restrict the employee (hint, see last month’s blog for specific information on excluding and restricting).  If the employee has a sore throat and fever, at the minimum they should be restricted, unless they are serving a highly susceptible population such as a nursing home, in which case they should be excluded.

As a manager, if at all possible, I always tried to side with letting the employee stay home until they were feeling better.  While this is easier said than done, I feared that the employee would come into work with an illness and it would quickly spread to other employees, thus creating a bigger issue than simply letting one employee stay home for a day or two.

It is also important to remember preventative approaches that you could use to mitigate risks of illness altogether.

  • Encourage employees to get their flu and COVID vaccines, if they are comfortable doing so. Both vaccines are readily available and inexpensive.
  • Clearly communicate to your employees the importance of reporting symptoms of illness to the management team. Remember, some of these illnesses pertain to members of the employee’s household, too, not just the employee.
  • Be sure your organizational culture supports those who communicate illnesses. Don’t make the employee feel guilty for abandoning their position on a day they are ill. Perhaps the impacts of this guilt have been minimized in our post-COVID world, but employees tend to hold each other accountable in ways some of us might not think about.

Be sure to communicate to your employees the importance of following these protocols and that it not only keeps their peers safe, but their customers and the business, too. Doing so will ensure that everyone stays healthy and are truly able to enjoy the holiday season.

Don’t forget to check out our most recent SafeBites Webinar, “A Foodservice Operators’ Guide to the Food Code”, which will be posted in early December!  If you have any topics you’d like here addressed in 2023 during the SafeBites Webinars, please reach out and let me know.  Risk Nothing.