Food for thought

How to avoid the risk of food and drink in the work area.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) protects employees while they perform daily work, which includes risks related to food and drink in the work area. Granted, from an OSHA standpoint, the risk may be lower in an ophthalmology technician station or a back office than in a hospital or a laboratory; however, microorganisms that cause disease do not discriminate, as long as the conditions exist for them to survive.

Sanitation and contamination

OSHA regulations primarily cover bloodborne microorganisms, but be alert to other microorganisms that make people ill (for example, influenza was rampant this winter). The risk from microorganisms that are not bloodborne occurs often in the work setting. Airborne droplets containing viruses or bacteria spread by coughing, sneezing, and talking. Surfaces and shared objects are also frequently contaminated by unwashed hands.

People sitting close to each other while working at a front desk or tech station can easily contaminate food and drinks. When consumable items are nearby, such as an open food container or a coffee mug, staff are at risk of coming into contact with microbes that can make them ill. For this reason, permitting food and drinks in patient care areas is unsanitary and can be risky.

Also, OSHA has several regulations related to food and drink:

  • OSHA’s bloodborne pathogens standard [29 CFR 1910.1030(d)(2)(ix)] “prohibits employees from consuming food and drink in areas in which work involving exposure or potential exposure to blood or other potentially infectious material (OPIM) or where the potential for contamination of work surfaces exists.”
  • Section 29 CFR 1910.141(g)(2) states that employees are prohibited from consuming food or beverages in any area where there is risk to a toxic material or chemicals.
  • 1910.141(g)(4) mandates that “no employee can consume food or beverages in a toilet room nor in any area exposed to a toxic material.” Cleaning agents and other chemicals may be used in clinical and other work areas, potentially rendering them unsafe areas to consume food and drinks. This same regulation also prohibits storing drinks and food in the same refrigerator with medication or other chemicals.

Remember, OSHA exists to protect you, the employee in the workplace. Meanwhile, the employer is responsible for evaluating the workplace to determine which practice locations present a risk to employee safety. The employer must prohibit employees from eating and drinking in these areas. OSHA standards set minimum safety and health requirements and do not prohibit employers from adopting more stringent requirements. Best practices keep food and drinks limited to the lunchroom or designated break areas.

Beyond OSHA

There are other common-sense reasons why the consumption of food or drink in patient areas is not acceptable in a professional office setting.

Anything that causes a distraction while working with patients increases the risk of error. For example, when your thoughts drift to your morning coffee or snack while completing a task, your work may be done hastily, which can result in mistakes. As an employee, you are responsible to arrive at work well nourished and prepared to do your job.

Also, consider how your hands and breath may smell following a morning coffee or snack. Good hygiene, especially oral hygiene, is essential in the work we do. Imagine sitting in an exam chair after walking past the tech station and observing caregivers drinking coffee or munching on food. This likely is not a five-star experience for the patient.

Be considerate of your patients by brushing your teeth or using mouthwash or mints prior to returning to patient care areas after lunch. Thoroughly washing your hands before and after consuming food is also a must. OP