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COVID-19 and College & University Foodservice: Part Three - Employee Safety

Updated: May 3, 2021

Building upon our last two posts on food safety and guest safety, our final topic will focus on the COVID-19 related effects and solutions to ensure employee safety in collegiate dining. Throughout the roundtable discussions hosted by Ricca Design Studios and Envision Strategies, concerns for employee safety were voiced repeatedly and emphatically. While much of the re-opening focus has been on cleanliness and service methods, college and university dining teams also want to ensure that their staff's physical and mental health is being responsibly cared for. Read along below as Phil and Kerri consider potential solutions for safely staffing kitchens and serveries as operations ramp up for the Fall.

1. Masks & PPE

Impact: likely temporary

Considerations: all operators that we spoke with are mandating masks for guests and employees alike, per CDC recommendations. Some schools such as Appalachian State University are issuing cloth masks to all dining employees as part of their uniform, plus surgical masks to any dining employees in the front-of-house who serve or interact with students. Consider temporarily installing plexiglass shields at points-of-sale and other close-proximity service points where food shields are not already present.

2. Screening / Testing

Impact: likely temporary

Considerations: mandatory pre-screening via temperature testing and symptoms assessments for all employees prior to starting a shift has now become standard procedure and will likely remain so until a vaccine is developed. The use of infrared thermometers makes this new step fairly straight-forward, although dedicating labor to recording temperatures or trusting employees to self-report may be a challenge. The University of Michigan is considering the use of thermal scanners for all employees and guests before entering a foodservice facility and electrostatic sanitizing systems for cleaning.

3. Minimize Contacts

Impact: likely temporary

Considerations: some institutions will be “teaming” employees so that individuals are working with the same group of people each shift in order to decrease their total number of daily contacts. Other schools will not be employing student dining team members for the Fall semester. Partnerships with guest chefs and local restaurants are also being put on hold, and many operators are looking to curtail the number of deliveries and/or vendors arriving on campus to reduce “outside” contacts.

4. Use of Disposable Wares

Impact: likely temporary

Considerations: first, let us dispel a myth – many people are under the impression that dish machines are not effective in sanitizing dishware against the COVID-19 virus. After numerous conversations with major warewashing manufacturers, we can confidently say that is not true. Between high-temperature (180-degree) cycles and standard detergents, wares can be safely sanitized without special equipment.

That said, what dining operators should be concerned about are touch points. (Have we emphasized this enough yet?) Even though the wares will eventually be sanitized, the dishroom staff still needs to process incoming soiled wares from guests, which is a critical risk in ensuring employee safety. In an effort to minimize touchpoints and limit potential exposure, operators are looking to temporarily implement disposable wares. The temporary use of disposables may also boost guest confidence in the safety and sanitation of the meals.

However, with a looming shortage of compostable and paper wares, increased disposables and other costs, issues with additional waste management, and concerns over sustainability ethics, some operators are getting creative. Smith College is requesting that guests help the effort by self-scrapping and sorting/racking their own soiled wares. Dishroom operators will then take the loaded racks straight to the dish machine. By eliminating the handling and pre-rinsing of wares, the Smith team has effectively improved employee safety.

5. Assign Safety/Sanitation Manager

Impact: potentially permanent

Considerations: to ensure that physical distancing, hygiene, and safety protocols are diligently adhered to, many colleges and universities are assigning a safety and/or sanitation manager to each dining venue. In addition to enforcing protocols, this manager may also be responsible for training staff on the new practices and expectations for health and safety. In the past, dining operators have tried to hide sanitation buckets and hand sinks from guest view; however, attitudes have now shifted towards making these elements and procedures highly visible!

Throughout all of our conversations and everything that we have read thus far, one thing is abundantly clear – there is no single solution or right answer yet. Conditions are still changing daily, and solutions must be tailored to fit each institution’s specific operations and needs. Gathering information, sharing best practices, and brainstorming new ideas together are great ways to stay connected and keep food, guest, and employee safety as top priorities during this challenging time. Continue to reference CDC and FDA guidelines such as this one for up-to-date information:

We’d love to hear what’s working for your institution. Please feel free to reach out with any creative solutions that you are employing! Stay tuned for other new content coming soon. #riccadesignstudios #creatingwhatsnext

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