Trading Standards Institute Advice

Staff fitness to work in a food business

This leaflet is for all food businesses, including those involved in catering, food production, food preparation, retail premises, restaurants, pubs, cafes, and fast-food shops.

What does fitness to work mean?
'Fitness to work' is the term used to describe the state of health of a food handler, and is mainly used to highlight a health condition that could affect the safety of the food they prepare or serve. Department of Health guidelines mean food handlers must be 'fit to work' with food.

Why does it matter?
By law, as the 'business operator' of a food business you are responsible for the food you produce (the business operator is often the business owner).

Some food-poisoning organisms can be passed on to your customers through food and drink. Viral-borne diseases, such as the norovirus (winter vomiting virus or 'tummy bug'), travel through the air.

Viruses can easily move from person to person using the faecal oral route - which is where contaminated faeces from an infected person gets into the digestive system of another person. An example of this is someone who uses the toilet but does not wash their hands and then handles food.

Food poisoning is unpleasant and can be dangerous, so it is very important to control every possible means of contamination, including any illness carried by food handlers and those who work in a food environment.

What do I need to do?
Make sure everybody understand what the law says.

The main thing you can do as part of your controls is make sure that you and your staff understand what fitness to work means. By law, everyone working with food must immediately report to their supervisor, their business owner or their or manager, any health issues that could affect the food. This includes the following illnesses:

  • diarrhoea or vomiting
  • food poisoning or food borne disease (confirmed by a doctor)
  • a heavy cold or sore throat
  • respiratory infections
  • skin infections
  • any kind of infected wound, or any weepy eyes, ears, boils or abscesses
  • illness after a holiday or visit abroad, especially if they have been to areas where sanitation is poor or the climate is warm
  • illness at home, for example if they have children with a tummy bug or food poisoning

You should encourage any food handler to report their condition, even if they aren't sure whether it puts the food or other people at risk. You must then decide if it is a problem and what to do. If you're not sure, you should ask the member of staff to visit a doctor, who will then check to see whether there is a problem. The member of staff must tell the doctor that they work as a food handler.

Stop food handlers working with food
Once you know a food handler has a health condition that can affect the safety of the food you produce, you need to stop them from carrying out any food handling duties. This means they cannot touch or come into contact with food, food surfaces or anything that comes into contact with food (this means they can't wash up, either).

When they can return to working with food will depend on the type of illness:

  • in the case of sepsis, such as boils and infected wounds or skin infections, they should not return to work until the affected area has completely healed
  • for diarrhoea and vomiting, they can't return to work until they have had no symptoms for at least 48 hours
  • in the case of confirmed food poisoning, they cannot return to work until the doctor says they can - for some types of food poisoning, this may mean they can't return to work until their faeces (stool) samples are clear of the bacteria - it can sometimes take several weeks for the infection to clear

Another problem is anyone who is a 'carrier'. This means a food handler who is infected with food borne illness, such as Salmonella, but shows no symptoms and may not know they are ill. They can infect the food and the illness is then passed on to people who eat the food and make them ill.

You can't always find out who is a carrier. You may only be able to find out after an investigation into an outbreak of food poisoning where all food handlers have had to provide a stool sample for testing.

You can get further guidance and advice from an environmental health officer, the Food Standards Agency (opens in a new window) and the Health Protection Agency (opens in a new window).

More information
You will find further guidance in our other leaflets on this website. Information can also be found on the Food Standards Agency (opens in a new window) website.

Alternatively, contact your local environmental health service for advice.

Please note
This leaflet is not an authoritative interpretation of the law and is intended only for guidance. 

© 2017 itsa Ltd.