Medical surveillance of food handlers

Medical surveillance of food handlers requires more attention. The vast majority of workplaces we visit have their own in-house canteens that prepare and serve food to the employees of the organisation – and in some instances provide meals to them more than once a day.

Food handlers, what is the risk?

What I have observed from conducting audits is that there is generally still little awareness about the fact that the food handler him/herself is the biggest risk to health of the employees. Since there is nothing hard and fast in National legislation requiring a food handler to undergo medical surveillance, most employers neglect to follow this course of action.

A food handler is a person who, in their normal routine work, comes into contact with uncovered food not intended for personal use. Food includes water and any other liquid intended for human consumption. For our purpose a food handler is thus any person involved in the processing, production, manufacturing, packaging, preparation, sale or serving of any foodstuff including water and beverages.

food handlers
The health of food handlers can affect the health of an entire organisation’s workforce.

Medical surveillance of Food Handlers

According to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, medical surveillance is the planned program of periodic examination of employees by an occupational health practitioner.

With food handlers, the hazard is the food handler as he/she carries the pathogenic organisms. This is why it is necessary for them to undergo medical surveillance – to determine whether or not they will be exposing our employees to such health risks.

In South Africa, the aspect of routine medical examination of food handlers varies considerably amongst health authorities, especially at local government level. Some enforce it through legislation, which makes it compulsory, while others do not require it at all. This situation is not in the best interest of all concerned and the Department of Health has therefore issued guidelines in this regard.

Proposed Strategy for the Health Surveillance of Food Handlers

The Department of Health (DoH) has issued the following six principles to be applied in respect of the management of health issues of food handlers:

  1. Management Commitment
  2. Education and Training
  3. Health Interviews
  4. Reporting illness to Management
  5. Applying basic food handling practices
  6. Applying basic personal hygiene practices.

In my opinion, what is most important is that managers should encourage employees to report to their supervisors whenever they have diarrhoea, sore throat, fever, a cold or open skin lesions, or are jaundiced.

The following conditions disqualify a person temporarily from food handling:

  • infection of the eyes or eyelids;
  • inflammation and/or discharge from ears;
  • oral sepsis;
  • staphylococcal conditions e.g. recurrent boils or open sores; or
  • recent history of gastrointestinal infection.
  • According to the DoH, the following rule with regard to the length of exclusion from work after specific illnesses should be applied. (Return to work in these cases should, however, only take place after consultation with and consent of a medical doctor):
  • Hepatitis A: six weeks from onset of jaundice;
  • Salmonella food poisoning, cholera, dysentery and typhoid and paratyphoid: three consecutive negative stool specimens taken 48 hours apart;
  • Parasite worms and other parasitic conditions: until successfully treated;
  • Staphylococcal and streptococcal: until successfully treated;
  • All other gastrointestinal illnesses (bacterial or viral): until symptom free: and;
  • Tuberculosis: seven days from onset of effective treatment.

It is therefore clear that in the absence of proper medical surveillance of our food handlers, we could essentially infect the entire workforce with illness.

3 thoughts on “Medical surveillance of food handlers

  1. I am interested in a concern we hear a lot during training. “Can the company appoint me for more than one position e.g. OHSA 16(2) and Safety officer and Stacking supervisor etc. Some persons to carry all appointment in one appointment letter, whilst others have more than one appointment letter, one for each additional job category the must fulfil. In the MHSA it is clear that dual appointments only for Safety officer’s exist as a MHSA MWR 2.17.4 with the duties of the safety officer (MHSA MWR 2.17.1), Can an expert please shed some light on this issue.

  2. Ben, let me explain the legal aspects of written appointments. Where a written appointment is required, this should be done on an official company letterhead as required in the Companies Act.
    The OHSA for instance does not prohibit the appointment of one person to many positions, provided that (s)he is competent and does not neglect the duties which (s)he is appointed.
    I for one cannot see the sense in giving one person 20 letters of appointment. The law required a person to be appointed to perform a certain function. If you are the Stacking supervisor and the ladder inspector and the fire equipment inspector and whatever, it can all be covered in one appointment letter. There is no court in SA that can prosecute you for “failing to appoint”.
    However the “experts” will tell you it’s a “legal” appointment and has to contain certain legal jargon. “Dear John you are appointed” is apparently not legal. You have to say I, the 16(2) hereby appoint you as the 8(2) supervisor and the GSR13 ladder inspector to make it “legal”.
    Also remember that all these “legal” requirements are “dual responsibility” appointments. However in the MHSA, the appointed Safety representative (not officer) may not perform any other duty.

    MHSA MWR 2.17.4?

  3. What about the Street Vendors and other food entrepreneurs like ; Koos Pompies – Boerewors Stall, Tant Sannies –Vetkoek and Curry Den, Zuma’s Chicken Pieces and Mielies at Taxi Ranks and on Street Corners, Food Stalls at Schools, Shows and Flee Markets, etc. Maybe they also should be registered and found competent by SACPCMP?

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