Personal hygiene is how you care for your body.
There are many aspects of good personal hygiene that you need to practice as a food handler to keep food safe.
This article explains the role of personal hygiene in preventing foodborne illnesses and how to ensure good personal hygiene as a food handler.
The link between personal hygiene and foodborne illnesses
Ensuring good personal hygiene is key to preventing the spread of foodborne illnesses.
Most foodborne illnesses are infections caused by disease-causing organisms called pathogens.
These pathogens include bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites.
However, chemicals or physical objects are food hazards that can also contaminate food and cause foodborne illnesses.
Practicing poor personal hygiene is one of the most common reasons foodborne illnesses develop and spread (1).
This is because there are numerous ways food handlers can contaminate food throughout its flow.
As a food handler, you can contaminate food when you:
- have a foodborne illness
- have an open wound that contains a pathogen
- have cold symptoms
- have long nails or jewelry
- have contact with a person who is ill
- touch something that contaminates their hands and does not wash them
Except in certain situations, there must always be a barrier between your hands and RTE foods.
This barrier may be food-safe gloves, tongs, deli tissue, or other serving utensils.
Beyond these practices, there are other things you must do to ensure good personal hygiene and keep food safe.
Poor personal hygiene is one of the most common ways through which foodborne illnesses occur and spread. Good handwashing practices and handling RTE foods with a single-use glove or other barrier are simple but effective things you can do to keep food safe.
Good hygiene practices
Good personal hygiene can prevent the development and spread of foodborne illnesses.
Therefore, it’s essential that you maintain good hygienic practices as a food handler.
When long, jagged, or both, fingernails harbor bacteria and other germs that may contaminate foods.
As such, you should keep your fingernails trimmed, filed, and maintained so the edges are smooth.
Fingernail polish and artificial nails are also potential sources of contamination so you should avoid them unless you wear single-use gloves at all times.
In this case, don’t forget to change your gloves — making sure to wash your hands prior to each glove change — whenever they become contaminated.
Jewelry such as bracelets, watches, and rings are excellent hiding spots for bacteria, dirt, and other debris that can get into foods.
Jewelry — whether the whole piece or pieces — may also land in food, resulting in physical contamination.
As such, you can not wear these types of jewelry.
However, you usually can wear plain rings like wedding bands without stones or etching since they are smooth and don’t offer a good hiding spot for pathogens.
If you choose to wear a plain ring, remember that it can still fall into food so you must be careful.
Medical information jewelry on your wrist can also act as a reservoir for pathogens, but you can wear this jewelry in the form of a necklace or anklet.
Like jewelry, your clothing can harbor pathogens, dirt, and other debris.
Touching your clothing can then contaminate your hands and consequently food-contact surfaces or the food you’re handling.
Food may also come in direct contact with dirty clothing.
Therefore, always wear clean outer clothing to reduce the risk of food contamination and send a positive message about the establishment’s level of sanitation to your customers.
If possible, change into your work clothes at work so you don’t bring outside pathogens into the kitchen.
Remove aprons when leaving food preparation areas — for example, if you have to use the restroom or take the trash out — and never use your apron or chef coat to wipe your hands.
Eating, drinking, and using tobacco
Eating, drinking, and using tobacco can easily spread pathogens through saliva droplets and direct contact with your hands, food, and food-contact surfaces.
Therefore, you should only engage in these activities in designated areas where contamination cannot occur.
Your manager may allow you to drink beverages from a closed container if steps are taken to prevent contamination.
Store backpacks and other personal items where they cannot contaminate food.
Bodily discharges of saliva and mucus from persistent sneezing, coughing, or a runny nose can directly contaminate exposed food and clean equipment, utensils, linens, and single-use articles like gloves.
Therefore, you should always sneeze or cough into your elbow and away from food and food-contact surfaces and then wash your hands.
If you cannot control your sneezing, coughing, or runny nose, your manager may assign you to a different duty where food contamination cannot occur.
You should also avoid chewing gum while serving or preparing food as saliva droplets can contaminate food.
Hair can contaminate food directly if it falls into or touches food.
It can also indirectly contaminate food if you touch your hair and then continue to prepare food without washing your hands.
A hair restraint, such as a hat, hair covering or net, and beard restraint keeps hair from falling into or touching food and reduces the urge to touch your hair.
Also, avoid wearing artificial eyelashes as they can fall into food.
Like humans, dogs and other animals can harbor pathogens that can contaminate food.
Therefore, you should not handle or care for animals due to the risk of contamination.
There are many factors to good personal hygiene that you must follow to keep food safe.
Reporting symptoms and illnesses
Your responsibility as a food handler is to prevent foodborne illnesses by serving safe food.
But, there may be times when you become sick or even develop a foodborne illness.
Common symptoms of a foodborne illness, include:
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eye whites)
- sore throat with a fever
Out of caution to prevent the spread of pathogens, you must notify your manager or the person in charge immediately if you have any one of these symptoms.
You should also let your manager know if you have an infected wound.
Signs and symptoms of an infected wound include pain, swelling, redness, and pus or fluid discharge or drainage.
If you have an infected wound on your hand, cover it with a waterproof bandage and wear a single-use glove. If the wound is on your arm or other parts of your body, cover it with a durable bandage.
Wearing a single-use glove over a bandage on your hand or fingers keeps the bandage in place and out of food while also reducing the chance that discharge from the infected wound spreads to food.
Some foodservice operations require food handlers to wear a brightly colored bandage over the wound so they can more easily identify it if it falls into food.
The skin naturally carries pathogens like Staphylococcus aureus or staph. Infected wounds can also contain this bacteria, which can make people sick if it gets into foods.
You should also let your manager know if you have been diagnosed or exposed to one of these foodborne illnesses:
- hepatitis A
- Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC)
- Salmonella typhi (typhoid fever)
- Salmonella (nontyphoidal)
These pathogens are known as the “Big 6.” They spread easily through food and can make many people sick.
If you experience foodborne illness symptoms or know that you have been exposed to or have a foodborne illness, let your manager know immediately. If you have an infected wound, cover it with a waterproof bandage and wear a single-use glove.
The bottom line
There are many aspects to good personal hygiene that you must practice to keep food safe.
Wash your hands often, avoid bare-hand contact with RTE foods, and practice other good personal hygiene habits.
Finally, let your manager know if you are experiencing certain symptoms or if you have been exposed to or have a foodborne illness.
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