CIFS Guide to

Personal Hygiene for Food Handlers

How to practice good personal hygiene to prevent the spread of food-borne illnesses.
CIFS Guide to Personal Hygiene for Food Workers

This guide was developed to help foodservice operators and Food Handlers ensure a safe working environment and prevent the spread of food-borne illnesses.

Food Handlers have legal obligations with regards to personal health and hygiene, as practicing poor personal hygiene or working with an illness can cause serious problems for a food business, including food poisoning.

In This Resource


washing spinach

Poor personal hygiene can cause serious problems in a food business, up to and including a food-borne illness outbreak. Besides ruining a food business’s reputation, food-borne illness can cause customers to fall seriously ill, or even die. As a Food Handler, it is important for you to practice good personal hygiene to ensure a safe working environment and prevent the spread of food-borne illnesses.

A Food Handler is any person who works in a position where they are involved in food preparation or come into contact with food. This may be directly through cooking, packaging or serving food. It can also be indirectly through storing, transporting and delivering food.

Even those who come into contact with food preparation surfaces such as cutlery, crockery, benches and kitchen utensils are considered Food Handlers and are subject to the same rules and regulations as those who directly handle food. 

Legislation Governing Personal Hygiene

Food Handlers and food businesses have legal obligations with regards to their personal health and hygiene. Although legislation may differ between provinces and municipalities, most legislation states that Food Handlers must take all practicable measures to ensure his or her body — including anything from his or her body and anything he or she is wearing — does not contaminate food or surfaces likely to come into contact with food.

This means that as a Food Handler, you must do everything in your power to make sure that you are preparing food safely.

Personal Hygiene

food worker plating food

Good personal hygiene is essential for any Food Handler and minimizes the risk of food contamination. Most people carry harmful bacteria on their bodies and can unknowingly transport them to food. Touching your mouth, nose, hair or even your clothing can spread bacteria and cause contamination. Even healthy people are not immune and must practice good personal hygiene to minimize this risk. In this guide, we cover:

  • correct hand washing
  • not handling food when sick
  • wearing proper clothing
  • behaviour in the workplace

Correct Hand Washing

hands lathering

Even if hands look clean, they can still harbour harmful pathogens. Correct hand washing is paramount when working with food. Improper hand washing is one of the leading causes of food contamination and is responsible for the spread of deadly pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli and Norovirus, as well as dangerous respiratory infections such as Adenovirus and Hand-Foot-and-Mouth (HFMD) disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that throughout the world over 2.2 million children under the age of 5 die each year from diarrhea and respiratory infections caused by improper food preparation.

Food Handlers are required to wash their hands before starting work, handling food or packaging, handling equipment, linen or utensils, eating, caring for the sick or changing dressings.

They must also wash their hands in between handling different types of food, such as raw and cooked foods, or utensils.

Proper hand washing is also required after:

  • visiting the restroom

  • coughing or sneezing

  • eating or smoking

  • handling money

  • handling raw food

  • handling used crockery, glasses or cutlery

  • handling garbage or contaminated food

  • touching the face, body or jewellery

  • cleaning or handling chemicals

  • taking a break

One gram of feces can contain as many as 1 trillion bacterial microbes, which is why it is important to wash your hands thoroughly.

Many Food Handlers do not understand the correct process for hand washing. Correct hand washing is broken down into six steps:

  1. Wet hands. Use hot water to wet your hands and remove any visible dirt or grime. Hot water is more effective than cold water. Hot water kills bacteria and removes oil that can harbour bacteria.
  2. Apply soap. Apply a liquid soap to your hands. Try to avoid or limit the use of bar soaps as they can harbour bacteria. If you must use bar soap, ensure that it is stored in a container that allows for self-drainage and is cleaned regularly.
  3. Lather and scrub. Rub your hands together well with soap for a minimum of 20 seconds. Make sure to thoroughly clean palms, the back of the hands, between each finger and under your fingernails.
  4. Rinse. Remove the soap using warm running water for at least 20 seconds. Be sure to point fingers downwards while rinsing.
  5. Turn off the tap. Use a paper towel to turn the tap off. Taps can be a breeding ground for bacteria when people turn them on using dirty hands.
  6. Dry hands. Use a paper towel and dry hands thoroughly. Do not use a tea towel or your apron as this will contaminate your hands again. Wet hands can carry up to one thousand times more germs than dry hands.

Food businesses are required to provide hand washing facilities with clean running water, soap, and paper towels. They must also ensure that these stations are used exclusively for washing the hands, arms and face and not for the preparation of food.

Not Handling Food When Sick

hands washing under tap

You should never prepare food for others if you suspect that you may be sick. Food Handlers are prohibited from working with food when they are sick because there is a high risk of transferring harmful pathogens onto the food they are working with. This is why it is so important that any Food Handlers who may be sick stop working with food immediately. Illnesses that would prevent you from working with food include: typhoid, cholera, hepatitis A, tuberculosis and gastroenteritis.

You should not work with food when experiencing symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps, a sore throat or a fever. If you suspect that you may be ill, you must inform your supervisor right away and stop working with food immediately. If you have to miss work due to illness, then you may need a medical certificate from a doctor to determine when you can return to work safely.

It’s not just illnesses that may stop you from working with food; any Food Handlers suffering from cuts, sores or boils must ensure their wounds are covered using clean, good quality dressings and bandages, and change them regularly. Signs of wound infection or discharge from your eyes, ears, or nose must be reported immediately, and you must stay away from any food handling areas in the workplace.

Wearing Proper Clothing

Dirty clothing is one of the leading causes of cross-contamination in the kitchen as it can carry bacteria from one place to another. It is important that all your clothing be laundered and stored correctly to prevent the spread of bacteria. Your clothing must also be microbial clean, meaning that the microbes on the garment have been reduced to a safe level.

Always use good quality cleaning products and be sure to store clean clothes in a clean, dry place, away from any possible sources of contamination. Many protective items such as gloves and hairnets are designed to be used only once and must be disposed of after use. Long hair must always be tied back and preferably contained using a hairnet. Jewellery must also be kept to a minimum.

Behaviour in the Workplace

food being plated in a kitchen

Your behaviour in the workplace may also be a source of food contamination, and some actions you take without thinking can be seriously harmful. When moving around the workplace, try the following tips:

  • Avoid all unnecessary contact with ready-to-eat foods such as salads, cooked meat or fruit. This has been proven to reduce the risk of food contamination significantly.
  • If you cough or sneeze into your hands, always ensure you wash your hands thoroughly and replace any gloves you have been wearing.
  • Never touch your face, hair, jewellery or clothing while preparing food.
  • Do not taste food with your fingers or with utensils that are then returned to the food.
  • Do not smoke. If you do need to smoke, always ensure it is done well away from all food preparation areas, and ensure your hands and face are washed thoroughly afterwards.
  • Wipe perspiration from your face with a cloth or paper towel, then wash your hands thoroughly.
  • Avoid chewing gum while preparing food.
  • Replace any protective clothing such as aprons and gloves when moving from one area of the kitchen to another.
  • Always know your company policies regarding moving between work stations.

As a Food Handler, being more aware of and taking steps to improve your hygiene can have a significant impact on the health and safety of your community.

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