A recent study on food worker habits found that 60 percent of restaurant employees said they had worked a shift while ill, with 20 percent saying that, in the past year, they had worked at least one shift while experiencing vomiting or diarrhea. Four articles published in the December edition of Journal of Food Protection spotlight restaurant safety practices across the country. The research was organized by the Environmental Health Specialists Network (EHS-Net) within the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Food Safety News highlighted two of the studies on Monday in a story entitled, “Studies on Restaurant Food Safety Produce Some Unsettling Data.” Below are some findings from two of the other studies: Food Worker Experiences with and Beliefs about Working While Ill (article link) When food handlers work while ill, they run a considerable risk of sickening restaurant patrons. In fact, ill employees contribute to as many as two-thirds of restaurant-related outbreaks. EHS-Net researchers conducted interviews with 491 food workers from 391 randomly selected restaurants in nine states to discover trends behind worker motivations for working while ill.

  • 60 percent of restaurant workers said they had worked a shift while ill. Of those who had done so, 89 percent said they made the decision independently, while the decision was influenced by management 11 percent of the time.
  • Those were worked while ill did so for one or more reasons: no paid sick leave (44 percent); understaffed or no staff available to cover shift (32 percent); symptoms didn’t feel contagious or bad enough (31 percent); feelings of obligation or strong work ethic (31 percent). More than 70 percent said that the severity of illness, type of symptoms and possibility of making others ill each influenced their decision to work.
  • 20 percent of workers said they had worked one or more shifts while experiencing vomiting or diarrhea in the previous year. Of those, 61 percent did so on two or more shifts.
  • Managers were aware of sick employees working in 63 percent of circumstances, usually because the employees informed them.
  • About half of the employees who said they worked while ill changed their behavior in some way, but only one-third of those changes related to food safety, such as more frequent hand washing or avoiding food preparation. “These data suggest that food workers are working while ill and are not taking the necessary precautions to prevent their customers from getting ill,” the authors wrote.

Frequency of Inadequate Chicken Cross-Contamination Prevention and Cooking Practices in Restaurants (article link) Poultry is the most commonly fatal food associated with foodborne illness, as well as the fourth most common food to cause illness. Between 1998 and 2008, 61 percent of poultry-related outbreaks were connected to restaurants. EHS-Net researchers interviewed kitchen managers in 448 restaurants concerning chicken preparation and cooking practices.

  • 80 percent of managers said their restaurants washed, rinsed and sanitized raw chicken contact surfaces as recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Another 10 percent said they washed and rinsed surfaces but did not sanitize them, which does not meet FDA’s recommendations, while 4 percent said they only used a sanitizing solution.
  • 60 percent of restaurants had designated cutting boards for raw meat, while 40 had them never, rarely or only sometimes.
  • Cooks determined whether chicken was fully cooked by using a thermometer 46 percent of the time.
  • Chickens were rinsed or washed in 42 percent of kitchens. While proper washing may reduce the bacterial load on a chicken, it also increases the potential for cross-contamination from spraying water if not done correctly.
  • When asked the safe minimum temperature for cooking raw chicken, 43 percent of managers answered FDA’s recommended temperature of 165 degrees F, while 25 percent answered with a temperature below that and another 25 percent provided an answer below. Only 7 percent said they did not know. The lowest temperature answered was 90 F, and the highest 500 F.
  • “A limitation of our study is that the data were collected through self-report methods and thus may be susceptible to a bias toward over-reporting socially desirable behaviors, such as preparing chicken properly,” the authors wrote. “Data were collected from English-speaking managers only; thus, our data may not represent the proportion of kitchen managers who are not English speakers.”