Know what each employee is doing and how that person is progressing in task management and safety.

Food Service Safety Makes the Grade

Know what each employee is doing and how he/she is progressing in task management and safety.

From cafeteria servers to institutional food service staff to the proliferation of franchise fast-food storefronts, seemingly on every corner, and taking in mom-and-pop designer locals and even mega-sized food production factories, food quality and safety are issues for all of us. Seen in this light, food preparation and service touch everyone on a regular basis. More important are the foodborne illness outbreaks when food preparation is not tightly controlled from product contamination or less-than-ideal site sanitation.

Occupational safety can help on many levels to keep things running well, from the full-time safety professional on site to the purchased, or online, self-completed program to cover the needed regulatory standards.

The goals of food service safety are exactly the same as those for any other occupational safety and health facility. The only differences will be defined by the workforce and management interest and follow through for achievement. Your efforts, whether a sole proprietor or a corporate safety guru, are dictated by the time, planning, and attention to detail you provide. Add in highly controlled consistency, and you have a winning program in the making.

Here's how to start:

  • Know your business and the hazards associated with it. Before you start operations; conduct your facility assessment for hazards. If unsure, search the web, purchase preprinted monthly inspection forms, ask your insurance carrier or risk management specialist for assistance, and visit to find helpful items for the beginner. Make a list of hazards, and update it often.
  • Know the inherent hazards of food preparation, including a key one, slick floors from water, grease, or product spillage. One of these can turn a walkway into a ski slope and a disaster site in the making. Utilize safety mats or customized or readily available floor coatings to increase slip resistance, texture, and ease of cleaning. Insist on and then require adequate foot protection for the work being done. Enforce your foot protection policy and efforts. You have to reinforce "everyone is responsible" so that any employee who finds something wrong (such as a slick area on the floor) must report it. This will reduce injuries. It takes time, but every effort saves lost work time and worker's comp costs.
  • Knives, saws, and packaging machines are everyday tools of the trade. You'll deal with them by using cut- and puncture-resistant gloves, aprons, protective footwear, hair coverings, hearing protectors, temperature protection clothing, ergonomic hand tools, and pneumatics and lifting/transfer aids, among others. In warehousing, forklifts and loading dock safety are front and center, along with eyewash and drenching units and Hazard Communication. Know what your company has on site and how to use it so you can train employees on how to utilize it properly. Make a list and keep your certifications current for forklift, lockout/tagout, and other required training; you'll find that has a comprehensive list available.
  • Sanitation efforts. My favorite example is when the nighttime cleaning crew runs out of cleaner/sanitizer and refills the containers with water. (After all, who will know?) The bad news is that this was done by three crews! Moral of the story: Neat may not mean clean. Enforce food safety, handwashing and cleaning techniques, and chemical safety. Check and review the purchases for your cleaning chemicals and hand cleaners. Make sure what you order and what your employees actually use are the same thing and is approved for food preparation! You may be surprised at the low amount being replenished and what that may mean in a required clean working environment. Few industries have as much immediate ability to make a lot of people sick as a facility that sends out a contaminated or spoiled food product. This breaks the public trust and brings huge liability home to that company in follow-up investigations.
  • How about pest control and the chemicals being used? Are they approved for food production and service areas? Can you pull and have available your documentation, SDS sheets, and training signed sheets, and can you justify every effort you have made?
  • Organization and documentation drive the industry. Is your work site well set up and organized? Do employees replace items? What about records…can you instantly pull employee work training records, PPE records, health testing where needed, permits, and repair requests? Is every employee going through the exact same process from day one until fully qualified?
  • Fire safety and general knowledge of fire prevention. Check every exit to make sure it is open, accessible, clearly labeled. Teach fire safety from the ground up, starting with trash and rubbish accumulation and disposal and including flammable chemical use and storage, electrical safety, ground pins on machinery, damaged cords, “rigged” electrical, and homemade connections. Regularly inspect for clear aisles, storage of flammable items, your sprinkler system (if your site has one), hood extinguishers, (including how to really clean up after a hood extinguisher system is activated. As you think about food preparation oil and grease for cooking, how about smoking guidelines?
  • When things go wrong, make sure managers and lead employees have a well-thought-out backup plan or know what to do in emergency situations. Post emergency numbers and the site address. Policies need to be specific to the problem, such as requiring product disposal in the event an employee is cut and bleeds onto it, a bin turns over onto a non-sanitary floor, etc. Just ask the big companies that have nationwide product recalls what a headache those can be for public relations, safety, employee morale, and the bottom line. Emergency management situations might be cooling/refrigeration units going down, power outages, spoiled product issues, wrong deliveries, and the ever-present clever employee horseplay on site (causing something to be destroyed). It was not long ago that an on-site maintenance employee repaired a hose to a cooker improperly; it broke, spraying into the cooker flame, and caused the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant fire and multiple deaths. All of this could have been prevented.
  • Asking for assistance. Is there a call list for anything from an HR issue to emergency repairs and even an employee's death from an injury on site? How should they respond to an OSHA inspector walking in or the local FDA or sanitation inspector? You need to know before the final report shows up that someone is on your site.
  • On-the-job injuries and worker's compensation. Keep track of what employee injuries are really costing you, including replacement workers, medical costs, final impairment ratings, etc. Track how the injuries happen and target those areas for more intensive follow-up. If it is in a code area with which you are unfamiliar, admit it and find a good consultant. A well-qualified consultant can save you thousands of dollars and hours of your personal research. Do be specific on what you will pay for.
  • Train, train, train. Don't expect any employee -- whether a high school part timer, a well-qualified manager, or a recently released felon -- to know instinctively what you want and the high standards of safety you demand in his or her everyday activity. From the new employee orientation to task-specific training to intensive supervision and documentation, know what each employee is doing and how he/she is progressing in task management and safety. Conduct team meetings and safety committee meetings, and ask questions often when you walk through. Know what is going on in your area of responsibility and make needed improvements or changes quickly.

Food service is high traffic, transient, and hard to track. Employee turnover is often very high among populations that may have a wide mixture of educational backgrounds, language barriers, and employee apathy. With the economic situation, budgets are slashed or non-existent.

Focus on the important areas of safety as a starting point and continue expanding. This will not be an instant fix, often not an easy fix, but developing a consistent model that educates every employee from day one the exact same way will greatly enhance your final lowered injury and product loss rate and will send your employees home safe and sound. Safe public exposure and safe employees are complementary and fully achievable goals.

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Linda J. Sherrard, MS, CSP, is Safety Consultant II with Central Prison Healthcare Complex, NCDPS in Raleigh, N.C., and is the former technical editor of OH&S.

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