The importance of food handler personal hygiene

Table of Contents

Personal hygiene is of utmost importance for food handlers working in the food industry to ensure safe food. It is a fundamental aspect of food safety, and it can prevent cross-contamination of harmful bacteria and viruses. This is because our bodies have trillions of bacteria living on or in us. Food handlers therefore must maintain the highest possible standards of personal hygiene. Food business operators have a responsibility to ensure food handlers are trained in the importance of personal hygiene and hygienic practices when working with food.


Cross-contamination can occur when harmful bacteria or viruses are transferred from one surface to another, or from one food item to another. This can happen during food preparation when food handlers touch their face, hair, or clothing and then touch food without washing their hands. 

It can also happen when food handlers touch raw foods and then do not wash their hands before touching cooked or ready-to-eat foods. Poor food handling practices can result in unsafe food leading to food poisoning. It is for this reason that hand washing is so important. Effective and regular hand washing can prevent the spread of harmful bacteria and viruses, and cross-contamination and ultimately it can prevent food poisoning. It is essential that food handlers wash their hands regularly and effectively as part of safe food handling practices.

Hand washing

Hand washing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of harmful bacteria and viruses and ultimately food poisoning. It is a simple process that involves washing your hands with soap and water.

Food handlers should wash their hands before handling food and after activities such as:

  • Using the toilet
  • Taking a break
  • Handling raw food (i.e. raw meat or poultry)
  • Dealing with someone who is ill
  • Touching hair, nose or face
  • Smoking or eating
  • Coughing, sneezing or blowing the nose
  • Cleaning
  • Handling waste
  • Handling external packaging
  • Changing a plaster or dressing
  • Touching door handles, switches, crates, trollies etc
  • Handling money

When washing your hands, it is important to use warm water and soap. You should wet your hands under warm water, apply soap and rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds. Make sure to wash the backs of your hands, your fingers, around your thumbs and under your nails. Then, rinse your hands with clean warm water, and dry them with a clean towel. It is best to use disposable towels (i.e. paper towels) , as reusing a towel or tea towel can spread bacteria.

It is a legal requirement for a suitable number of wash hand basins to be provided for hand washing. These must be kept accessible for hand washing at all times. These should be provided with a supply of hot and cold water (or mixed warm water), liquid soap and hygienic facilities for drying hands (for example paper towels).

Protective clothing

Personal hygiene goes beyond just hand washing. It involves maintaining a high level of cleanliness and hygiene throughout the day. Food handlers should wear clean protective clothing that is appropriate for their job. They should also wear hair nets or hats to prevent hair from falling into food.

Protective clothing is worn to protect food from contamination. Contamination could occur from a food handler’s own clothing. This could carry contaminants such as dirt, dust and hair. In this way, harmful bacteria could transfer from clothing onto food.

Food handlers are required to wear any protective clothing provided by their employer. They must also make sure it is kept clean and changed when it becomes dirty or contaminated. Protective clothing should also be changed after handling raw foods and before handling cooked or ready to eat foods.


Jewellery should be avoided as it can fall into food. It can also act as a breeding ground for bacteria and other pathogens, which can contaminate food and lead to foodborne illnesses. This is especially true for rings, which can trap dirt, moisture, and bacteria under them, making it difficult to properly clean the area.

To prevent these potential hazards, food handlers must avoid wearing any jewellery while working with food. This includes rings, bracelets, watches, necklaces, earrings, and any other type of jewellery, with the exception of a plain wedding band. 


Food handlers must avoid nail varnish and false nails. Nail varnish may chip off or flake into the food and false nails may fall into the food. Nails should be kept short, this is because long nails can result in bacteria harbouring underneath them and can then contaminate food. Even if food handlers wash their hands regularly or wear gloves, bacteria can still harbour underneath long nails. To prevent this, long nails must be avoided, this will also make hand washing easier.

Fitness to work

Ensuring that food handlers are fit to work is an essential component of maintaining food safety standards. Sick employees can spread harmful bacteria and viruses, which can cause foodborne illnesses and put customers at risk. This is why it’s important for food handlers to be in good health before they start their shift.

In addition, it’s important for employees to report any illness or symptoms of illness to their supervisor immediately. This will help to prevent the spread of illness to other staff members or customers. Employers should have policies in place that encourage employees to report illness and provide them with the necessary support and resources to recover and return to work when they’re feeling better.

Sick employees should not be permitted to work until they are fully recovered and no longer contagious. If a food handler has suffered from sickness or diarrhoea they must not return to work with food until they are clear of symptoms for at least two full days. This is to ensure that they do not put themselves or others at risk. Employers should also be mindful of the risks associated with presenteeism, where employees come to work when they are sick, as this can increase the risk of illness spreading to other staff members and customers and could ultimately result in a food poisoning outbreak.

By taking a proactive approach to employee health, food handlers can help to ensure that the food they prepare and serve is safe for consumption. Maintaining good health, reporting illness promptly, and adhering to company policies can all help to prevent the spread of harmful bacteria and viruses and protect customers from foodborne illnesses.

Cuts and wounds

Food handlers should also be aware of any cuts or wounds on their hands. Provided it is uninfected they can continue to work. The cut or wound must be covered with a brightly coloured, waterproof dressing or plaster to prevent the spread of bacteria.

The reason a plaster should be brightly coloured is so it can be easily seen if it fell off into the food. There are not many blue foods, which is why the plasters are normally blue! 

In catering premises, first aid kits should be provided that are equipped to deal with specific catering-related injuries.

UK food safety law

In the UK, food safety law is enforced by local authorities. Food Safety laws cover everything from personal hygiene to food storage and preparation. If the local authority food safety officer or EHO witnesses poor personal hygiene practices during a food hygiene inspection, this could affect the businesses food hygiene rating.

The regulations require food handlers to maintain a high level of personal hygiene and to take steps to protect food from contamination. 

Food handlers have a number of duties by law. These include:

  • Protecting food from contamination or anything that could cause harm to the consumer
  • Following good personal hygiene practices and keeping themselves clean. (This includes regular hand washing, wearing the correct protective clothing and keeping long hair tied up)
  • Keeping the workplace clean
  • Informing their employer (for example; telling their manager or supervisor) if they or a household member are suffering from or are a carrier of a food borne illness.
  • Informing their employer if you have any skin infections, sores or wounds (that could contaminate food)
  • informing their employer if they are suffering from vomiting or diarrhoea and not return to work with food until they are clear of symptoms for two full days 
  • Reporting any food safety concerns to their employer immediately

In conclusion, personal hygiene is a fundamental aspect of food safety. It can prevent the spread of harmful bacteria and viruses, and it can prevent cross-contamination. Food handlers must maintain a high level of personal hygiene when working with food. This includes regular hand washing, wearing clean protective clothing and informing their employer if they are suffering from vomiting or diarrhoea.





“How to get your 5-star food hygiene rating.”

Written by Chartered Environmental Health Officer, Natalie Stanton.

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