How to identify a sick food handler

The health of your food handlers could mean the difference of producing a safe food product and poisoning your customers.  Welcome to session #19 of the HACCP Mentor 101 series. In this session we cover some basics in how to recognise the health status of your food handlers.

Have you considered the health risk of your food handlers?

Before we jump into this topic you need to answer this very important question. During your risk assessment process (or your hazard analysis) did you consider the hazard of a sick food handler? Did you consider the spread of disease or the possible health contamination of a sick food handler? If yes….fantastic! Take the opportunity to double check what you assessed and rated this risk as.  If no, after reading this post make sure that you include an assessment in your HACCP or HARPC based food safety plan.

The story of Typhoid Mary

You may or may not have heard about the story of Typhoid Mary. Reports from the early 1900s indicate that a young servant cook working for affluent families in New York City, was the first person in the United States identified as an asymptomatic carrier of the pathogen associated with typhoid fever.  Mary, apparently a picture of health, was linked to several outbreaks where people were infected with typhoid fever. Among the 51 infections Mary was presumed to have caused, at least three deaths were attributed to her. However, due to her use of aliases and refusal to cooperate, the exact number is not known. The bacteria associated with typhoid fever is known as Salmonella typhi.

Potential hazards of a sick food handler

There are many diseases that can be passed on by food handlers but the most common ones associated with food poisoning and food contamination. These include Salmonella, Staphylococcus, Hepatitis A and Noroviruses. To find out more about these check out the Bad Bug Book.  This book is definitely interesting reading for all people who handle food.

You also need to consider the transmission of illness between sick food handlers and other food handlers. It leaves your food business in a vulnerable position if all of your staff are off sick because another food handler spread their germs to their co-workers.

Identification of diseases

Common sense should tell you to look for obvious health signs in a sick food handler or that they are that may be suffering from a potential food poisoning infection or disease. These health signs include nausea, vomiting, headache, loss of appetite, fever, diarrhoea, jaundice (yellowing of the skin / whites of eyes), pus, stomach cramps or mild itching. For non-visual symptoms, look for changes in the sick food handler’s usual behaviour, like frequently visiting the bathroom. Even the lunch time conversation my alert you to a possible health risk.

Promoting healthy habits

Prevention is always better than cure (and also dealing with a food poisoning outbreak and all the legalities that go with that). Make sure that you regularly promote to staff through your education and training programs good personal health and hygiene practices. Also known as control measures to prevent contamination by sick food handlers, these should include:

  • Effective hand-washing after going to the toilet, touching face, hair or other body parts, sneezing or using a tissue.
  • Not working while sick.
  • Reporting overseas visits (a bit like customs / quarantine requires when you enter particular countries)
  • Reporting if anyone in your family has been ill
  • Not spitting within the food premises
  • Only eating or drinking in designated non-food areas.
  • Only using single use cooking implements for tasting to avoid saliva contamination
  • Effective and confidential illness reporting procedures

You may also like to implement medical screening for staff prior to employment or routinely during their employment to determine their food handler health status.

Have your say

It is every food handler’s responsibility to control their personal hygiene.  I would love to read about your experiences with how you identify and control food handler’s health in your food business. Leave a comment below to share your story with the HACCP Mentor community.

10 thoughts on “How to identify a sick food handler”

    1. Hi Naidu

      As far as I know there are limited vaccinations you can provide to food handlers to give long term immunity. Although, there are continuing research into this field. There is however a vaccine available for Hepatitis A. You can find our more about Hepatitis A at

  1. Trevor McManus

    Training needs also to include:
    a) Recognition of symptoms. Often, obvious symptoms (vomiting and diarrhea) are included – but not things like jaundice and skin sores
    b) Return to work requirements. ‘ Feeling fine ‘ (as with typhoid Mary) is not enough – a qualified medical practitioner needs to make the assessment – and not a shift leader or site Nurse
    c) Specific local health issues. In some areas of the world for instance – TB is endemic while not known in other Countries

    1. Thanks for sharing your great tips Trevor. Local health issues especially for those staff who have been away travelling is an area not generally included in business illness policies.

  2. I believe that one of the critical issues are there paid sick days available to all employees? In today’s economies, people need their paychecks and they will attempt to work when they are ill if there are no available sick days. The employees must be made aware that sick days are not available to add to vacation time. They are there to be used only when needed. I have worked in places where employees were able to tack their paid sick days onto their vacation time and when they got sick, they had no recourse except to try to hide their illness.

    1. This is a real issue Jack, thanks for sharing. Getting people to only use sick leave when they are sick is a problem that is faced by many food businesses.

    1. I really think that a food business needs to factor in ’employee sick leave’ into their costs. Having good clear policies and procedures around sick leave is a minimum. Thanks for your comment Thomas.

  3. Syed Farhat Raza

    For new employee we have orientation where person is trained on Hygiene policy and it includes health as well.
    Before joining person to fill health declaration.
    For exusting employees referrer course.
    Filling of health status form after holidays.
    SI ck person is ta ken out from work and not allowed to work without medical report.

    1. Thanks for your feedback Syed. It is great to see that your business has a plan when dealing with food handlers that may be sick.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get free HACCP advice and updates

Find out how to better implement and manage your HACCP, legal and food safety compliance requirements by joining the HACCP Mentor newsletter.

Scroll to Top