When to Avoid Work Due to Illness or Injury

Working with food when you’re sick can lead to serious consequences. Learn how to determine when it’s best to stay home from work.
March 2, 2022

It’s part of a Food Handler’s responsibilities to always uphold high standards of personal hygiene. If Food Handlers don’t report illnesses, wash their hands properly or wear the proper work attire to prevent food contamination from their clothing or body, they are putting their customers and colleagues at risk of a food-borne illness outbreak.

The importance of proper hygiene practices and limiting contact with other people when sick has only been emphasised more by the COVID-19 pandemic. For food businesses, it’s crucial that every step is taken to help prevent the spread of food-borne illness and other contagious illnesses.

When to avoid working with food

Remember that certain illnesses and injuries prevent Food Handlers from working with food. This is because harmful pathogens can be transferred onto the food you’re working with and cause a food-borne illness outbreak. Even if you don’t work with food directly, you might contaminate equipment, surfaces and other Food Handlers.

If you’re suffering from any of the following illnesses, stop working immediately and let your manager know.

Food-borne Illness
This illness is caused by consuming contaminated foods or beverages — which is what you want to prevent from happening to your customers! Even if you’re only feeling mild symptoms, you can easily contaminate food and cause a food-borne illness outbreak in your business.

Symptoms of food-borne illness include diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, headaches, stomach cramps, fever, gas, bloating and belching.

Gastroenteritis
Also commonly referred to as the “stomach flu,” gastroenteritis is the inflammation of the stomach and intestinal lining. It’s not always caused by food-related illness and many types of bacteria, viruses and parasites can be the culprit behind gastroenteritis. Some of the most common causes of gastroenteritis are norovirus, Campylobacter, E. coli and Salmonella.

Symptoms of gastroenteritis include diarrhoea, vomiting and stomach cramps.

Colds & Flu
Don’t handle food if you’re suffering from a fever, sore throat, cough, runny nose or other cold and flu symptoms. If you have mild symptoms, you may still be able to perform other tasks that don’t involve working with food, though it’s important that you never come in to work with a communicable disease if you serve vulnerable persons such as the elderly, children under five years old, pregnant women and immunocompromised people.

Hepatitis A
This highly contagious liver infection is spread from person to person after putting something in the mouth that is contaminated with faeces containing the hepatitis A virus. In a food business, it can be easily spread when Food Handlers don’t wash their hands properly before handling foods and drinks.

A person can be contagious one to two weeks before symptoms even start, and these symptoms can last for one to two weeks. Symptoms include nausea, fever, stomach pain, dark-coloured urine and jaundice. Due to its highly contagious nature, Food Handlers should be excused from working for at least two weeks after the onset of clinical symptoms.

Other Diseases
If you’ve been diagnosed with the following, you should also avoid working with food:

  • Typhoid: a bacterial infection often passed through contaminated food and water that can lead to high fever, diarrhoea, vomiting and even death
  • Tuberculosis: an infectious disease that affects the lungs and spreads from person to person through tiny droplets in the air from coughing and sneezing
  • Cholera: an acute diarrhoeal illness caused by an intestinal infection by the Vibrio cholerae bacteria that is spread through consumption of contaminated food or water

Asymptomatic carriers

An asymptomatic carrier is a person who is carrying a virus while not showing or feeling any symptoms. While you may not show any symptoms, you can still pass the disease on to other people and cause a food-borne illness outbreak.

If you’ve been in contact with anyone who has a contagious illness, notify your manager and contact your doctor to determine next steps.

Working with an injury

Having an injury doesn’t always mean that you have to miss work, though it’s crucial that you don’t let any cuts, sores or boils come into contact with food while working.

To help prevent food contamination while working with an injury, always:

  • Use clean, good quality bandages and dressings (bright-coloured bandages and dressings are helpful as they can be easily seen if they accidentally fall into food or get lost)
  • Replace bandages and dressings frequently
  • Wear waterproof disposable gloves over bandaged cuts and sores

Sometimes, accidents can happen in the workplace — especially if you’re working with knives and other sharp utensils or equipment.

Take the following steps if you cut yourself at work:

  • Stop working right away
  • Get the wound treated or seek further medical attention
  • Throw away any food you were working with or may have contaminated
  • Clean and sanitise all surfaces and equipment you’ve touched
  • Let your manager know so that any other corrective actions can be implemented if required

Still unsure about whether or not to go to work when sick or injured? Use the Australian Institute of Food Safety’s (AIFS) Employee Illness/Injury Decision Chart to help determine if it’s safe for you to work with food, and what steps you need to take when experiencing illness symptoms.

How owners and supervisors should manage sick employees

Food business owners, managers and supervisors should actively foster a positive working environment where employees feel comfortable notifying the management team about illnesses and injuries that could prevent them from working.

If a team member has notified you of a condition that may cause food-borne illness in others, or if you suspect that a staff member may be sick and should not be working with food, take the following steps:

  1. Determine how serious the condition is.
  2. Restrict the employee from working with food. If symptoms pose a serious threat to food safety, such as diarrhoea, stomach cramps, vomiting and jaundice, the employee should not be allowed on the food premises.
  3. Manage possible contamination by discarding any food that the employee may have come into contact with while sick and do not serve any food that may have been handled by the employee. Thoroughly clean and sanitise all surfaces, equipment and utensils they may have used.
  4. Work with medical specialists and the local authorities to minimise the risk of a food-borne illness outbreak. Employees with hepatitis A, jaundice or a food-borne illness should be reported to your local authorities so that they can implement the appropriate public health measures. If an employee’s illness poses a serious threat to food safety, or if you serve high-risk customer groups, work with the local authorities and the employee’s medical practitioner to determine when the employee is safe to return to work.

Remember that certain steps need to be taken when someone in your food business may have been exposed to COVID-19. Learn how to deal with sick employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Food business owners, managers, supervisors and Food Handlers have legal responsibilities to ensure food is prepared safely. Keep in mind that avoiding handling food when sick is just one factor in practising good personal hygiene!

Learn more about how to ensure a safe and hygienic working environment using the AIFS Guide to Hygiene and Behaviour in the Workplace, and ensure everyone who handles food in your business has the comprehensive food safety training they need to help prevent food-borne illness outbreaks by taking our nationally recognised Food Safety Courses.