While you may not think of food poisioningfood poisoning as a workplace hazard, an outbreak caused by contaminated foods or liquids can lead to a significant amount of lost time. Given that the effects of food poisoning often last for two or three days, a worker could easily miss a couple days as he or she recovers. For people with other health problems, a bout of food poisoning can lead to more serious conditions and even hospitalization.

The nature of workplaces and behavior of workers can increase the potential for food poisoning. For example, workers may bring their food to the jobsite and store it improperly, such as failing to refrigerate items that must be kept cool to be safe. Or workers may buy their meals at restaurants where sanitation may be lacking. People who work at remote sites for a long periods of time — such as construction contractors working in rural settings — may have few choices for food purchases and limited options for storage.

The good news is that the vast majority of food poisoning incidents are preventable by properly preparing and handling food. By being aware of basic safety and handling food correctly, workers can minimize the potential for discomfort and lost time.

What is food poisoning?

What’s known as foodborne illness occurs when someone consumers food or beverages that have been contaminated. There are many different forms of contaminants, including bacteria, parasites, toxins, and bacteria. Foods can be contaminated by being stored improperly, from coming in contact with contaminated equipment (such as utensils or cutting boards) during preparation, or if the person preparing the food has some kind of contagious medical condition and touches or coughs or sneezes on the food.

The symptoms of foodborne illnesses typically appear within a few hours of consuming the food. They often begin with abdominal pain or cramps and a feeling of nausea, which may develop into vomiting and diarrhea. Individuals with food poisoning may also feel extremely weak and feverish, and will probably need to stop working until the symptoms subside. Depending upon the severity of the episode, that may take anywhere from 24 hours to three days.

How much time passes between when the food is consumed and the symptoms appear depends upon the specific contaminant. For example, if the poisoning was caused by a bacteria that becomes toxic before it’s eaten, such as staph bacteria, the symptoms typically appear in less than six hours. If it takes longer than 12 hours for symptoms to occur, it was probably caused by a bacteria or parasite that acts during the digestive process, such as salmonella or some types of E. coli.

How to treat it

In most cases, the symptoms of food poisoning will subside after the toxins leave the body. When a person with food poisoning has vomiting and/or diarrhea, it’s easy for them to become dehydrated. That’s why it’s so important to try to replace fluids, even if the person has trouble keeping the fluids down. Water and sports drinks that contain electrolytes are good choices. Once the individual is able to consume fluids without vomiting, they can slowly begin to eat bland foods.

If vomiting and/or diarrhea continue for more than 24 hours, you should seek medical attention. In addition, if the worker is pregnant or has an impaired immune system, they should seek medical help immediately. Severe cases of food poisoning may require hospitalization.

Avoiding food poisoning

About 80 percent of food poisoning cases occur from eating commercially prepared foods. If a worker shows symptoms of food poisoning after obtaining food from a restaurant, it’s likely that others who ate there may also develop symptoms, especially if they ate the same food. That’s why it pays to be selective when choosing restaurants, or when buying food from street vendors. If a restaurant doesn’t look and smell clean, avoiding it may be the best option.

One common source of food poisoning is failing to store foods properly. For example, foods that contain raw eggs — such as mayonnaise — must be properly refrigerated. If a worker makes a turkey sandwich with mayonnaise before work and lets it sit in a hot truck for several hours, he or she is creating the perfect opportunity for bacteria to grow. Eating undercooked food can also lead to poisoning, because foods such as meats must be cooked to a certain temperature to destroy naturally occurring bacteria. If a worker is going to store a lunch at the jobsite, it should either be refrigerated or kept in an airtight cooler with ice or a cold pack.

Even vegetables can be a source of bacteria that cause food poisoning. Several recent outbreaks of food poisoning have been traced to specific types of vegetables that were grown or processed in ways that exposed them to E. coli and other bacteria. Properly washing vegetables can reduce the risk, as can keeping your home kitchen and utensils clean.

Water can cause problems, too

Another situation that’s similar to food poisoning occurs when workers drink water that has been contaminated with organisms, even organisms that occur naturally. Contamination can be caused by water tanks that aren’t properly cleaned, failed pumps, and other sources. On a hot day, a cool stream or pond may look clean, but it may be full of bacteria that can’t be seen, or parasites that may multiply in someone’s intestinal tract, leading to serious illness.

OSHA requires employers to ensure that workers have access to a supply of clean drinking water, so they may remain hydrated throughout the workday. The Department of Labor expects employers to provide an adequate supply of potable water for drinking and washing, and to prohibit workers from sharing cups, water bottles, or ladles for dipping water. Using water fountains, containers with disposable cups, and individual water bottles provides a more sanitary solution.