More Restaurants Get This Key to Sanitation Wrong Than Get It Right…

Kitchen Pass in Restaurant

Horizontal Surfaces are Everywhere in Restaurants and They Need Care!

The goal of a safe and healthy restaurant operation when it comes to the condition of surfaces is for them to be consistently clean and sanitary throughout the operational day. Modern approaches have resulted in the mediocre operations get better, the poor ones stay the same, and some of the good ones to get worse. Why? Because of a change in sanitation approaches and regulations. What exactly is it that many restaurants get wrong?

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Policy vs Reality: Sick Restaurant Employees

Restaruant worker with stuffy nose

“I’m Kayla and I’ll (cough) be your (cough) server today.”

An Awkward Moment

I knew I needed to ask the question, and I was quick with it when the server returned to my table. “Do you have a cold?” She had a look on her face like she’d been caught red-handed in something as she paused before answering. “Why, uh, no, no, I just have …allergies.” Unfortunately her obvious stuffy nose, and very productive-sounding throat clearing moments earlier at the waitress station (which was in easy hearing range for me, even though she might have thought otherwise) told a very different story. I acknowledged her answer with a nod, and watched as she set my beverage down and made a rapid retreat deep into the kitchen. About two minutes later she came back to the table and was barely there when she reinforced her earlier answer, in the least scratchy voice she could muster. “Allergies, I have allergies, not a cold, no, just allergies,” before rushing away again quickly.

Indications and Realities

Of course it is possible that she was indeed suffering from allergies, and not a cold, but given both her symptoms and her reactions, I wasn’t exactly reassured. The establishment that I was dining at that morning already had a few weak spots evident in the area of food safety and sanitation, which only contributed to my ultimate feeling of unease.¬† I had noticed the manager off in a different section of the counter area, busy discussing someone’s break coverage, but not really circulating around. I also noticed that my server seemed to be steering clear of the manager as much as possible.

Getting Serious

Most chain restaurant establishments have a policy about not coming to work sick. Hotels, retail establishments, institutional food service, and other public-contact jobs usually include this policy as well. It’s typically documented somewhere in the new hire materials or the employee handbook. I’d expect that the restaurant that I was in that morning had a similar policy. The issue comes down to whether it is taken seriously or not. If you’d like your guests to have confidence in the sanitation of your establishment, consider the following points:

  • When new hires are trained, how is your “not working sick” policy explained and emphasized?
    Aside from your handbook or training materials, what sort of visible reminders such as job aids or posters are present?
  • Do managers make a point of spending some time with each crew member each shift? (Note that this serves a much broader purpose that just understanding if someone is healthy or not!)
  • How serious are you about your policy? Are you unwilling to compromise on it when staffing is tight for other reasons?

And perhaps most significantly, how complete and effective is your policy about calling in sick? It is not an easy balance to strike to set a policy that considers the importance of good attendance and holds people accountable for that, while at the same time conveying an understanding that it is expected that you will not come to work sick.

Your Attendance Policy

I recall years ago, at one facility I was managing, having an employee call in sick, pleading for some consideration for his eclipsing the allotted number of absences and lates. His plea: “Yes, I’ve called in sick a bunch of times already this quarter, but this time I’m really sick!”

Setting and enforcing an attendance policy can be an involved and tricky discussion, but one thing you can do today is to consider just how clear you are on one non-negotiable in any business with public contact: “We don’t want you to come to work when you are sick. It is important for our customers that everyone understands and acts on that.” Training is important, but noticing what’s going on, and offering reminders and guidance is even more important.

Risk Perspective: Foodborne Illness Prevalence

Fresh Fish at a Fish Market

Fresh Fish at a Fish Market

Why Foodborne Illnesses Matter
Foodborne Illness is a significant business hazard risk area affecting restaurants, food service, and food production operations, and many other service, hospitality, and manufacturing industries. It is also an important topic for personal risk control. Because of the importance of the issue, and how many people it touches in one way or another, it deserves repeated coverage from several angles and levels of depth.

The types and categories of foodborne illness, risk factors, signs and symptoms, prevalence, severity levels, and control measures are all worth becoming familiar with to a certain degree. That degree varies, of course, based on your business and personal connection to the issue, but we will begin with some items of near-universal applicability. To that end, let’s take a brief look at what individual foodborne illnesses are the most common and the most dangerous.

Most Common Foodborne Illnesses
(By number of cases in the U.S.)
1. Norovirus
2. Salmonella
3. Clostridium Perfringens
4. Campylobacter spp.
5. Staphylococcus Aureus

Most Dangerous Foodborne Illnesses
(By number of fatalities in the U.S.)
1. Salmonella
2. Toxoplasma Gondii
3. Listeria Monocytogenes
4. Norovirus
5. Campylobacter spp.

Bacteria Under the Mircoscope

Pathogens Under the Microscope

A Question for You

So here’s the question and the issue: If you don’t happen to work directly in the area of food safety, environmental health, or sanitation, how many of those sound familiar to you? How many do you think about related to any particular set of conditions that you see? Many people recognize two or three and have just about no sense of the rest. Did you have any sense, looking at the lists, of what sort of numbers we are talking about? Here are the numbers for 2011:

Number of Cases of Most Common Foodborne Illnesses
(Cases in the U.S., in thousands)
1. Norovirus 5400
2. Salmonella 1000
3. Clostridium Perfringens 965
4. Campylobacter spp. 845
5. Staphylococcus Aureus 241

Most Dangerous Foodborne Illnesses
(By number of fatalities in the U.S.)
1. Salmonella 378
2. Toxoplasma Gondii 327
3. Listeria Monocytogenes 255
4. Norovirus 149
5. Campylobacter spp. 76

Note:  Foodborne Illness Data from Centers for Disease Control, 2000-2008 and 2011 data.

Chef making crepes

Crepe Making

And It Makes What Difference?

Now what do those numbers mean to you? What is the relative level of danger and appropriate response? I’d suggest that most people in general, and many people in affected businesses, don’t have good answers to those two questions. We will cover some of the facts, figures, and approaches to the control of foodborne illnesses in restaurants, food service, food manufacturing, and at home. More importantly, though, is the idea that whatever your business or personal situation, you need to understand the most prominent risks you face, and have a sense of what to do about it.