A Food Handlers Guide to Personal Hygiene

Poor personal hygiene can cause serious problems in the kitchen, food poisoning being the most serious, and cause irreparable damage to a business's reputation.
June 29, 2016

Poor personal hygiene can cause serious problems in the kitchen, food poisoning being the most serious, and cause irreparable damage to a food business's reputation.

As a food handler it is important for you to practice good personal hygiene to ensure a safe working environment and prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses.

What is a food handler?

A food handler is any person who works in a position where they come into contact with food or food preparation. This may be directly through cooking, packing or serving food, however it can also be indirectly through storing, transporting and delivering food.

Even those who come into contact with food preparation surfaces such as cutlery, crockery, benches and kitchen utensils are also considered food handlers and are subject to the same rules and regulations as those who directly handle food.

Legislation governing personal hygiene

Food handlers and food businesses have legal obligations with regards to their personal health and hygiene The Food Safety Standard 3.2.2 states that food handlers must take all practicable measures to ensure his or her body, anything from his or her body, and anything he or she is wearing, does not contaminate food or surfaces likely to come into contact with food.

This means that as a food handler, you must do everything in your power to make sure you are preparing food safely.

Personal hygiene 

Good personal hygiene is essential for any food handler and minimises the risk of food contamination.

Most people carry harmful bacteria on their bodies and can unwittingly transport them to food. Touching your mouth, nose, hair or even your clothing can spread bacteria and cause contamination. Even healthy people are not immune and must practice good personal hygiene to minimise this risk.

So what can you do to help prevent the spread of harmful bacteria?

Hand washing

Even if hands look clean, they can still harbour harmful germs and bacteria so correct hand washing is absolutely paramount when working with food.

Improper handwashing is one of the leading causes of food contamination and is responsible for the spread of deadly bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Novovirus, as well as dangerous respiratory infections such as Adenovirus and Hand-Foot-Mouth disease. In fact, The CDC estimates that throughout the world over 2.2 million children under the age of 5 die each year from diarrhoea and respiratory infections caused by improper food preparation.

Hands should be thoroughly washed after starting work, handling money, handling raw meat, sneezing or touching the face, and of course, visiting the toilet. One gram of feces can contain as many as one trillion bacterial microbes! That is why it is so important to wash your hands thoroughly after visiting the toilet and handling animal product such as fresh meats and free range eggs.

This sounds easy enough, but many food handlers do not understand the correct process for hand washing.

Correct handwashing is broken down into 6 steps:

  1. Wet hands - Use warm to hot water to wet your hands and remove any visible dirt or grime.
  2. Apply soap - Apply a liquid soap to your hands. Try to avoid or limit the use of bar soaps as they can harbour bacteria. If you do need to use bar soap, then ensure that it is stored in a container that allows for self drainage and is cleaned regularly.
  3. Lather and scrub - Rub your hands together well with the soap for a minimum of 20 seconds. Make sure to thoroughly clean palms, the back of the hands, between each finger and under the fingernails.
  4. Rinse - Rinse off the soap using warm running water for at least 20 seconds and be sure to point fingers downwards while rinsing.
  5. Turn off the tap - Taps can be a breeding ground for bacteria when people turn them on using dirty hands, so try to use a paper towel to turn the tap off.
  6. Dry - Wet hands can carry up to one thousand times more germs than dry hands, so it’s important to dry hands thoroughly using a paper towel or hand dryer. Do not use a tea towel or your apron as this will contaminate your hands again.

Food businesses are required to provide hand washing facilities to all food handlers including clean running water, soap and drying facilities. They must also ensure that these stations are used exclusively for washing the hands, arms and face and not the preparation of food.

Health of food handlers

You should never prepare food for others if you even suspect that you may be ill.Food handlers are prohibited from working with food when they are ill as there is a high chance of contamination.

Some viruses can be transmitted through food just as bacteria can, and may be able to survive on food for long periods of time. That is why it is so important that any food handlers who may be sick stop working with food immediately.

Illnesses that would prevent you from working with food include, typhoid, cholera, hepatitis A, tuberculosis and gastroenteritis. You should not work with food when experiencing symptoms such as diarrhoea, vomiting, stomach cramps, sore throat or a fever.

If you suspect that you may be ill, then you must inform your supervisor right away and stop working with food immediately. If you do have to miss work due to illness, then you may need a medical certificate from a doctor to confirm when you are able to return safely.

It’s not just illnesses that may stop you working with food. Any food handlers suffering from cuts, sores or boils must ensure their wounds are covered using clean, good quality dressings and bandages, and ensure that they are changed regularly.  

Signs of wound infection or discharge from the eyes, ears, or nose must be reported immediately, and the food handler must stay away from any food handling areas in the workplace.

Clothing

Dirty clothing is one of the leading causes of cross contamination in the kitchen as is can carry bacteria from one place to another.

It is important that all clothing be laundered and stored correctly to prevent the spread of bacteria. Clothing must also be microbial clean, meaning that the microbes on the garment have been reduced to a safe level. Always use good quality cleaning products and be sure to store clean clothes in a clean, dry place, away from any possible sources of contamination.

Many protective items such as gloves and hairnets are designed to be used once only, and must be disposed of after use and never re-used.

Long hair should always be tied back and preferably contained using a hair net. Jewellery should also be kept to a minimum.

Behaviour in the workplace

Our behaviour in the kitchen may also be a source of food contamination, and some things you may do without thinking can be seriously harmful.

When moving around the workplace try the following tips:

  • Avoid all unnecessary contact with ready to eat foods such as salads, cooked meat or fruit. This has been proven to significantly reduce the risk of food contamination.
  • If you cough or sneeze into your hands, always ensure you wash your hands thoroughly and replace any gloves.
  • Never touch your face, hair, jewellery or clothing while preparing food.
  • Do not taste food with your fingers or with utensils that are then returned into the food.
  • Do not smoke. If you do need to smoke, always ensure it is done well away from all food preparation areas, and ensure your hands and face are washed thoroughly afterwards.
  • Wipe perspiration from your face away using a cloth or paper towel, then wash your hands thoroughly.
  • Avoid chewing gum while preparing food.
  • Replace any protective clothing such as aprons and gloves when moving from one area of the kitchen to another.
  • Always know your company policies regarding moving between workstations.

This public health information was produced and distributed by the Australian Institute of Food Safety Foundation.