Food Workers & COVID-19 Illness in the Workplace

Food businesses need to understand the steps to take if an employee displays COVID-19 symptoms in the workplace.
Food businesses need to understand the steps to take if an employee displays COVID-19 symptoms in the workplace.

April 16, 2020 — As the number of people infected with COVID-19 continues to soar, focus is shifting on how to ensure minimal disruption to the food supply chain if employees get infected. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released guidelines on what to do if a food worker starts presenting COVID-19 symptoms whilst at the workplace.

In the majority of cases, people start to fall sick at home or away from work and communicate this to management by telephone, but managers and supervisors must be prepared and know the steps to take if an employee does fall sick at the workplace.

Taking Care of a Sick Employee

If an employee starts to display symptoms of COVID-19, the first step is to remove them to an area well away from other people. Ideally, this would be a room or area where they can be isolated behind a closed door (such as in a staff office) where an outside window can be opened for ventilation. The employee should be removed from the food premises as soon as it’s safe to do so.

Whilst still in the premises, the affected employee must avoid contact with other employees and refrain from touching other people, objects or surfaces. If the employee needs to use the washroom, a separate washroom should be made available if possible to do so.

Coughing and sneezing are common symptoms of COVID-19. If the employee is displaying these symptoms, they should use a disposable tissue to cover their nose and mouth, and then put the tissue in a bag or pocket until it can be disposed of safely in a bin with a secured lid. If tissues are not available, the employee should cough or sneeze into the crook of their elbow.

Cleaning, Sanitizing & Disinfecting

If an employee displaying COVID-19 symptoms has been on the food premises, then all objects and surfaces that they’ve been in contact with must be cleaned and sanitized or disinfected. Particular attention should be paid to high contact areas that could spread the virus to other employees such as toilets, door handles and telephones.

In general, sanitizers with 70-80% alcohol have been shown to be effective against the coronavirus. Other sanitizers commonly found on food premises that are based on quaternary ammonium compounds or chlorine are also effective.

Protecting Other Employees

All staff members who came into contact with the infected employee must wash their hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds with soap and water.

Close contacts of the employee must be informed and sent home to self-quarantine for 14 days. According to the WHO, close contacts at a food business include:

  • any employee who was in face-to-face or physical (i.e. touching) contact
  • any employee who was within 1 meter with the confirmed case
  • anyone who has cleaned up any body fluids without adequate PPE (e.g. gloves, overalls, protective clothing)
  • employees in the same working team or work group as the confirmed case
  • any employee living in the same household as a confirmed case

Staff who have not had close contact with the infected employee should take the usual COVID-19 precautions and attend work as normal. There should be no need for these employees to self-quarantine, or for management to close the business if only one person was affected.

Policies, Training & Communication

Most food businesses already have a Food Safety Management System (FSMS) in place that includes policies on what to do in case of employee illness. These policies should be reviewed and updated to include COVID-19 specific information - for example, what to do if an employee displays COVID-19 symptoms in the workplace, reporting procedures for employees that are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms outside of the workplace, and the return to work procedure for employees that have been infected with and recovered from COVID-19.

The WHO recommends that employees should not be permitted to return to work until they are no longer displaying COVID-19 symptoms and have had two negatives tests at least 24 hours apart. If tests are not available, then the employee should not return to work until at least 14 days after the last symptoms were experienced.

Once completed, employees must be trained or re-trained in these new policies.