In general, people ensure that they are hygienic by washing regularly (by taking a bath or shower), brushing their teeth daily, washing their hands after going to the toilet and before eating, wearing clean clothes, washing their hair at least once per week and living in a clean environment.
Personal hygiene can be broken down into seven main areas:
- Health/environment – (this includes getting medical attention/ medication when needed or treating certain conditions at home to avoid them getting worse or spreading).
These are the basic areas that people need to attend to regularly to ensure they are maintaining good levels of hygiene; however, for people that work in places where they are required to handle or serve food, they must meet stricter standards of personal hygiene.
Poor personal hygiene
Poor personal hygiene can reflect one’s state of mind. It is typically associated with certain mental health issues, including severe depression. It can also indicate a person’s general poor attitude and lack of care towards themselves and others.
A person with very poor personal hygiene may appear to:
- Look unwashed/dirty.
- Wear unclean or unkempt clothes.
- Have greasy or untidy hair.
- Have a strong body odour.
- Wear dirty or battered shoes.
- Have rotten or yellow teeth.
- Have open sores or infected wounds on their skin.
In a customer-facing role, especially one in the food service industry, employees that have poor personal hygiene will reflect badly on the company that employs them. Poor standards of hygiene may put off potential customers who will choose to go elsewhere in future, and in serious cases can even lead to people becoming ill.
Any area where poor hygiene is practised gives the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. Bacteria are microscopic, single celled microbes, many of which cause disease. A single bacterium can divide and multiply to become many millions of cells in the space of a day.
Heathy human bodies are naturally covered in bacteria; some helpful, some incredibly harmful. Up to 50% of people are thought to have Staphylococcus aureus living around their nasal passages, in their throats, hair, or on their skin. This is a potentially dangerous form of bacteria that is responsible for many different types of infections including skin infections and food poisoning.
What is required?
High standards of general hygiene are important in businesses that serve food to minimise risk to the general public and to avoid the spread of illness.
Businesses that prepare, handle and store food are inspected periodically by local authorities and given a rating between 0 and 5 based on how compliant they are with food hygiene law (with 5 being the top score). This takes into account the cleanliness of facilities, how food is stored and handled and how well records are kept.
In England, displaying the food hygiene rating of a premises is optional, however, businesses are strongly encouraged to be transparent about the rating they are awarded based on their most recent inspection. In Wales and Northern Ireland ratings must be displayed in a prominent place.
If service staff have an unclean or unhygienic appearance, it is highly likely that this will inform a customer’s decision to eat elsewhere, even if the premises has a high hygiene rating displayed on the door. This will lead to a loss of footfall and drop in revenue for the business. It can also lead to a drop in team morale and damage to the reputation of the business.
It is vital that food service staff understand that they are essentially the face of the establishment and they provide one of the first impressions a customer gets about a business. Visibly high standards of cleanliness and hygiene are vital in any premises that prepares and distributes food and drink.
When staff start a new job in a food handling or food service environment, it is important that they understand exactly what is required of them in terms of personal hygiene, both by law and as a company standard. This should be discussed prior to their first shift and, for larger organisations, set out clearly in the company handbook.
All employees must be trained on the basics of food hygiene and personal hygiene in a food service premises and should understand the following:
- Prohibited practices in a food preparation/service area.
- How to wear and maintain protective clothing.
- How to correctly wash and dry hands.
- Safe and sanitary disposal of rubbish.
- How to spot and report hazards and pests.
To reinforce good practices, or to address shortcomings, management should focus on fostering a culture of good hygiene within the business. This can be done by making simple changes, such as displaying informative posters in staff rooms, ensuring there is always anti-bacterial soap in staff toilets (and that there is always adequate stock on site to replenish it), and enforcing regular cleaning routines and good housekeeping at back-of-house. Break rooms and staff toilets should be kept to the same hygienic standards as the front-of-house areas that customers see.
Managers/supervisors should also oversee regular training sessions and set good examples for staff to follow: a positive working environment is often led from the top down.
It is management’s job to ensure all staff are fit for work. If they see the hygiene standards of a member of staff begin to slip, they should speak to them immediately. If it is something minor it is likely to just be an oversight; if it is something more serious it is likely to be indicative of a deeper problem. A staff member may be having financial or housing issues which mean they are finding it difficult to keep themselves or their clothes as clean as usual. In this situation, they may temporarily need a helping hand.
Managers should be clear about any issues they experience with their employees’ personal hygiene but should be understanding too and able to provide staff with adequate support. It is a good idea to keep some ‘emergency’ hygiene items on site for staff to access such as spare uniforms, anti-perspirant for hot days and sanitary products for female staff.
By law, food handlers must be considered unfit for work and sent home under some circumstances, such as having open sores on their hands, certain infectious skin conditions, vomiting or diarrhoea. Allowing staff who are unfit for work to have contact with food poses a risk to public health. They must also have been clear of symptoms for 48 hours before returning to work.
It is important that staff know not only what is required of them in terms of personal hygiene but why. The link between poor hygiene practices and increased bacteria which can lead to customers being ill should be explained, as well as the more general perceptions the public might have of a staff member with poor hygiene. A customer who sees a member of front-of-house staff that appears unclean or unhygienic will likely assume that means the kitchen area is unhygienic also, even if this is not the case.
Managers are ultimately responsible for the health and safety practices within a business, but all staff should be trained on how to avoid, spot and report hazards. To ensure hygienic practices in kitchens and food service areas are being upheld, businesses need a strong Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan.
Poor personal hygiene within a food service area can also present unnatural physical hazards which would be outlined in the HACCP plan. For example, if a false nail breaks off or a plaster drops into food it will become a hazard.
Aside from the risk of spreading illness and bacteria, a member of staff with poor personal hygiene may make the rest of the team feel uncomfortable. As it can be an awkward issue to address, businesses should make sure staff know that they can approach a supervisor or manager to deal with the problem.
Good personal hygiene
All staff who deal with the preparation or service of food, drink or cleaning of cooking/eating utensils must understand the basics of maintaining their personal and work-space hygiene. This includes:
- Handwashing – the most basic rule of personal hygiene is regular handwashing. Staff need to wash their hands on shift with soap and water for at least 20 seconds regularly and ALWAYS after going to the toilet, touching their face or hair, sneezing or blowing their nose, smoking or eating and drinking.
- Hand drying – damp hands will transfer significantly more germs than dry hands. Communal towels can also harbour bacteria, so the most hygienic way to dry hands is a disposable paper towel.
- Protective clothing – if this is provided it must be worn and kept to a good standard (clean, dry and without holes) or replaced. Protective clothing in a food service area is typically an apron, hat, hairnet and sometimes gloves. It should always be removed before staff go outside to smoke or take a break to avoid picking up bacteria outdoors and bringing it into the kitchen.
In addition to the basics outlined above, staff who work in food preparation and food service areas are expected to show additional levels of personal hygiene:
- Nails – should be kept short and clean. Dirt that gets trapped under nails can harbour bacteria which can contaminate food. Nail varnish/false nails can present ‘unnatural hazards’ by flaking off or coming loose.
- Hair – hair is to be neat and tidy and washed as often as needed. Food service staff who spend a lot of time in the kitchen, especially if there is a lot of frying in oil happening, will find their hair appears greasy quite quickly. Long hair always needs to be tied back to avoid any stray hairs falling out or it accidentally making contact with food or drinks.
- Clothes – food servers must look clean, neat and presentable. If no uniform is provided, suitable clothes should be worn, without any decorations, such as beads or fringes, that could fall off and become hazardous. Clothes must be regularly laundered between shifts. Staff may be able to claim a tax rebate for washing, repairing or replacing their work uniform.
- Jewellery – should be kept to a minimum especially on wrists as it can pick up germs and bacteria throughout the day. Any jewellery containing stones, especially rings, can pose a hazard, both in terms of hygiene and choking, if the stones become loose and end up in a customer’s meal or drink.
- Plasters – these can also pose a hazard. It is inevitable that service staff often end up with cuts and grazes from food preparation or opening bottles. Blue plasters are customary in food service settings as they are more obvious if they fall off than the traditional pink ones. If staff require a plaster during their shift, it is best to wear a plastic glove as well.
- Perfumes and aftershaves – those that have a very strong scent should be avoided by food service staff as they can taint food and drink and be overwhelming for sensitive customers.
Whether working in a fine dining establishment, a fast food restaurant or a café in a supermarket, if staff are handling and serving food it is vital that they have high levels of personal hygiene.
The need for high standards of cleanliness does not stop at staff who work in the kitchen preparing and cooking food, but expands to waiting staff, hosts, kitchen porters and cashiers.
All roles within the food service industry can be fast paced and high pressured. It is important that staff keep in mind the simple steps needed to maintain good personal hygiene, even when they are working under pressure. When service staff appear clean and nicely presented it reflects well on their team and the organisation as a whole.
Establishing high levels of cleanliness amongst kitchen and food service workers will minimise the risks associated with poor hygiene, such as illness, for staff and customers alike.