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Coronavirus: Taking Precautions with Food at Work

A group of people serving food at a buffet.

​Lois in accounting is retiring, and there is a cake in her honor at the office-wide party. Employees at a department lunch meeting reach into boxes of pizza to grab a slice. An employee brings in brownies she baked at home to share with co-workers.

These are common scenarios in the workplace, but during the spread of the coronavirus, which causes the respiratory illness COVID-19, are such food-related gatherings a good idea? 



Food-centered events are good for morale, said Dr. Robert Quigley. He is senior vice president and regional medical director of International SOS, a medical and travel risk mitigation company that is headquartered in Singapore. He is also an infectious disease expert.

"We have to decide where we're going to draw the line" as far as the precautions an employer takes during the coronavirus outbreak, he said.

The U.S. Occupational and Health Administration (OSHA) notes that "for most people in the U.S.—including most types of workers—the risk of infection with COVID-19 is currently low."

Quigley suggested that instead of eliminating the availability of food at work at this time, employers should find safer ways to serve it.

At his organization, one person wearing gloves and a mask known as an N95 respirator would serve the pre-cut slices of pizza or retirement cake to employees. And the homemade brownies don't have to be banned from the office, provided the baker was healthy and the goodies were individually wrapped.

Taking preventive steps, such as having one person serve the food, shouldn't cause "any massive inconvenience to anybody," he said. "It's just a courtesy issue and a preventive one."

That's also true of practicing social distancing at these events.

"When Lois is giving her farewell address, everyone is spread 2 meters [6.5 feet] apart," Quigley said. "We just have to be a little more aware of our surroundings and how we are [cleaning] our workstations."

It's possible to contract COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it, then touching one's mouth, nose or eyes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, it's thought to be mainly transmitted person to person—between people within 6 feet of each other through respiratory droplets spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes.


Kitchen Hygiene 

Practice good kitchen or lunchroom hygiene, Quigley advised, by wiping down your table surface when you finish eating, using disinfectant, and not sharing food or beverages. Organizations that have cafeterias should practice dutiful care as they would at any time, he added.

[SHRM members-only resource: Quiz: Are You Prepared for the Coronavirus?]

"[Employers] should, at the very least, be ensuring those individuals preparing the food have been properly screened for recent travel history to impacted areas and are properly screened on a daily basis," he said. This includes asking questions regarding their health to determine whether they have any flu-like symptoms.

Additionally, employees should not report for work if they show any flu-like characteristics.

"To be vigilant, employers should have a low threshold for dismissing those individuals who are tasked with communal food preparation to avoid massive contamination," Quigley noted.

OSHA suggests that employers look for signs and symptoms of illness among individuals and track those with a history of travel to high-risk areas.

The Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) chief knowledge officer, Alex Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, noted in a recent SHRM webcast with the CDC that cleaning the food-service preparation areas, as well as the utensils, "is absolutely critical."

"We ask that each of these organizations follow the guidance provided by the CDC or OSHA," he said.

One best practice for food establishments or organizations that have a company cafeteria is to close the salad bar, he acknowledged, but other options also are available, depending on how the food area is set up.

"Many organizations like this have opted to designate employees to serve the food [to others] or have limited the access that the general public has to … this food. These types of businesses should also be monitoring the food bars already but could be even more proactive in watching customers if it is left for them to serve themselves as usual."

Additionally, "there is a potential for engaging in food cycling," which is bringing out fresh food to replace what's been sitting out, "and cleaning on a more frequent interval than they currently follow," he told SHRM Online after the webcast. "Lastly, some employers might opt to stop all food-bar options" and ask patrons to order from a menu instead of serving themselves.

If a food-service worker tests positive for the COVID-19 virus, Alonso said, the employer has an obligation to inform its employees—as well as its customers and vendors if it's a food-service business—and to recommend that they seek medical guidance if they were around the person who tested positive.

The CDC has advised colleges and universities to consider modifications to food services to encourage social distancing. One strategy would be to close some or all of an institute's cafeterias or cafes "to discourage students, staff and faculty from gathering in group settings." Another would be to offer "grab-and-go" bagged lunches or meal delivery.

Meituan, a food- delivery firm in China, has a paper "shield" to keep germs off the plates of diners eating in crowded offices or cafeterias, the New York Post reported. The business is providing the shield to eight restaurant chains for deliveries in Beijing and Shanghai. The device unfolds to a 20-inch, box-shaped space that covers the meal while the person eats.


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