How Often Do Food Handlers Work While Ill?

An ill food handler causes nearly 50% of all restaurant-related outbreaks.

While the study is now a few years old, as reported by State and Federal Environmental Health Specialists:

Many restaurant policies concerning ill food workers do not follow FDA recommendations.

Food Handler

One-third of the restaurants’ policies don’t address when ill food workers should not be allowed to work.

Managers are often NOT actively involved in decisions about whether ill food workers should work.

  • Almost 70% of managers said they had worked while sick.
  • 10% said they had worked while having nausea.
  • A third of managers felt obligated to work even when ill.

Food handlers reportedly work despite being ill because:

  • No one is available to replace them (26%), or
  • Their symptoms are mild or thought not contagious (19%) or
  • They had responsibilities no one else could fulfill (11%), or
  • There was non–food handling work, they could do (7%), or
  • They would not get paid if they did not work or,
  • The restaurant had no sick leave policy (5%).

The authors conclude, “Data from this study can inform future research and help policy makers target interventions designed to reduce the frequency with which food workers work while ill.”

My conclusion is we might be able cut food borne illness in half if we would demand sick workers stay home.

If you are a restaurant owner, recognize that sick employees serving food increases your risk of spreading disease, tarnishing your company’s image and may cost you money through lawsuits.

If you are a restaurant manager, make sure you have policies in place that address ill workers. Give the ill worker the day off, it may save you a food borne illness event or epidemic. A worthy goal.

If you are a restaurant employee remember that the public places trust in your ability within the food service chain to serve safe, clean food. If you are sick, take the day off. You will get well faster and you may prevent someone else from getting sick. Another worthy goal.

If you are dining out and served by someone obviously sick, walk away. Don’t take the risk. Don’t send the food back. Don’t ask for another server. Just walk away. Putting a high priority on food safety will drive improvement across the board and then everyone benefits.



Author: Dr. Harlan Stueven, MD

Harlan Stueven M.D. is a Board-Certified Emergency physician with sub-specialization in Environmental Toxicology and Board Certification in Medical Toxicology. Starting his career in the USAF, he served as a Flight Surgeon and Environmental Health Consultant Physician where one of his duties was monitoring food safety. In his nearly 40-year practice, he treated a range of medical, surgical and poisoning emergencies. He has been a Medical Director and/or Chairman of several hospital-based Emergency Medicine Departments, served as the President of Emergency and Environmental Medicine consulting group, a physician group Chief Financial Officer and sat on many national, state and local committees. Dr. Stueven founded Dining Grades and the Dining Safety Alliance to improve food safety by increasing awareness of food borne illness and the formation of partnerships within the food industry. He is a consultant to the Wisconsin Retail Food Establishment Grading Work Group; a Co-investigator in a CDC funded “Evaluation of Health Department Restaurant Inspection Programs” project. He has presented at several National, State and Regional conferences on restaurant grading and food safety. He is an accomplished leader, medical researcher, a champion of process improvement, author, and national and international speaker.

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