Employees can be a major source of contamination since they come in frequent contact with food during processing. Lack of proper hand washing is the second-most cause of foodborne illness. One of the first persons to promote washing of hands as a means to reduce incidences of disease was Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian Physician in the late nineteenth century. He observed fewer deaths among his patients when he practice of hand washing before treating attending to them. This may seem like a no-brainer to us, but back then the tiny world of microbes was not yet discovered. Semmelweis knew he was on to something but did not understand the scientific principle behind it. Given the lack of scientific basis, the medical community who he tried to share this finding with rejected it, and also rejected him. Semmelweis became very depressed and was subject to an asylum where he soon died. Years later, Louis Pasteur discovered microorganisms at which point Semmelweis’s hand washing theory was finally understood.

Hand washing may appear simple but it is a big deal. Spend time on this and make sure that every employee gets it. The steps in hand washing is similar to cleaning of other tools used in food processing. You proceed by rinsing, washing with soap, rinsing and drying. Employees should wash their hands before proceeding to production and should also wash during production whenever their hands become soiled. Hands should always be washed whenever they come in contact with hair or skin, or with body fluids from coughing or sneezing. Hand washing can be encouraged by locating appropriate signage and instructions at strategic points in the plant and by supervising and monitoring. Fake nails on fingers pose a risk for physical contamination and should therefore not be worn in the facility. In many cases, employees will be required to wear gloves instead of direct handling. Disposable gloves should be discarded if they become contaminated, or damaged. If they are reusable gloves, they should be cleaned and sanitized whenever they become contaminated. Colored gloves are preferred since they are easily detected if they get into food.

Other protective gears include hair and beard covers, coats, and shoes. Hair and beard covers are preferred to nets since they provide better protection against falling hair. They should adequately cover the entire bread and hair including ear lobes. False eyelashes are not permitted. Coats should be without packets. Disposable coats should be disposed of when soiled, while reusable coats should be changed for clean ones. Cleaning of coats may either be centralized at the facility or they may be sent to a cleaner. Shoes must be closed-toe type, non-slip and safe for the nature of work to be done. Steel tip protection will provide additional safety protection against falling objects.

Jewelry should be removed before moving to areas where food is prepared or stored. Medical alert bracelets are allowed. Wedding bands may be allowed as well if they are solid. That is, no stone or engravings. Lip rings, tongue rings and other body piercings should be discouraged by having a general policy against wearing of jewelry except where you provide for clear exceptions e.g. medical bracelets or wedding bands.

Employees should not report to work if they are sick or show any flu symptoms such as sore throat, coughing, sneezing or fever since these may be signs of foodborne illness. Employees should never handle food if they have open sores or boils. If employees inadvertently gets cut or small bruise, the exposed wound should be covered with a colored band aid.

One final thing about employee hygiene is that eating and drinking should not be done in designated areas at the facility. Smoking should be discouraged, especially if you are producing ready-to-eat foods. I remember inspecting a snack factory and noticing the owner walking in on the production floor smoking. Processing was not going on so I think he took it for granted that it was OK or that the rules for the employees do not apply to him. It was shocking. It made me wonder what went on when I was not there. 

Courtney Simons
Courtney Simons is a food science professor. He holds a BS degree in food science and a Ph.D. in cereal science from North Dakota State University.
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