When Sickness Strikes

by Katie Lee

An unusual floor care issue we need to discuss.

By Edward Sharek

Late last year, The Mirror, a London newspaper, reported that a chain of Mexican restaurants in the city was closed due to the “vomit bug,” which typically refers to norovirus.1 This included nine of the chain’s 25 London-area locations. Public health officials reported that just in those nine properties, 205 workers and 160 customers came down with the vomit bug — all about at the same time.

Norovirus has characteristic symptoms, which include sudden feelings of sickness, projectile vomiting and diarrhea. But one of the “good” things about the illness is it comes on quickly. In the case above, one of the restaurant patrons got sick on the London “Tube” within hours after leaving the restaurant. This is good because it helps public health officials pinpoint where the outbreak is coming from.

According to the report, Public Health England spokeswoman Deborah Turbitt said: “We’re working closely with environmental health officers and the restaurant chain to investigate. [But at this time] the source of the outbreak remains under investigation.”

A proper investigation would include asking restaurant workers if anyone became sick in the facility in the past couple of weeks. The big problem associated with norovirus, as mentioned above, is the projectile vomiting, which invariably covers large floor surfaces and surrounding areas. This means that if someone gets sick, it’s not just the actual vomit that must be cleaned up; all the surrounding areas where it could have been projected must also be properly cleaned and disinfected.

When an accident such as this happens in a restaurant, the spreading of germs and bacteria that can cause a variety of viruses or illnesses can be a serious problem. With norovirus, the problem is intensified. This is because while other germs and bacteria may only live on a surface a few minutes, hours or days, norovirus germs and bacteria can survive as long as 60 days. This means that the highly contagious disease can cause cross-contamination, making workers and patrons that come in contact with it sick for up to two months.

It is because of the persistence of the norovirus that restaurant owners and managers must be aware of procedures to properly clean up floors and surrounding areas after such an incident. But, before even discussing this, there is one point we must make: restaurant owners/managers should always assume a vomiting incident is the result of someone having norovirus. It’s better to play it safe and assume the worst. While we are not exactly sure what caused the outbreak in the London restaurants, it is very likely that it was norovirus, and it is clear just how fast it can spread.

Steps to Take

Most states and many communities have guidelines as to what steps to take to clean up a vomit accident in a restaurant or food service location. Because there are similarities and differences among these regional guidelines, we will discuss suggestions made on a national level by the National Environmental Health Association along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

We have also included additional suggestions that should help facilitate cleanup operations. The goal is to make sure cleanup operations are done effectively, with the health and safety of everyone in mind.

The first thing to know is that cleaning up a spill of this type must be handled differently than the traditional forms of restaurant cleaning. Pulling a mop and bucket out of the closet to clean the floor, for instance, often spreads the disease to other surfaces, walls and the bottoms of chairs and tables. It can also spread to the hands, clothes and shoes of the worker — without adequately addressing the problem.

To minimize the potential for the virus to spread, effective cleanup steps include the following:

  • Segregate the area; we recommend that any patrons or workers within 25 feet of the problem leave the area as soon as the incident occurs.
  • Employees called in to address the issue should put on disposable gloves and a face mask before taking any further steps; also, wearing a disposable gown is highly recommended.
  • While some guidelines suggest “wiping up vomit with paper towels,” this may not be the most efficient way to absorb the spill. A more useful step is to cover the fluid with a spill pad, expressly designed for this type of cleaning because a quality spill pad is far more absorbent. Use a yellow spill pad to designate a physical hazard, and be sure that it covers a wide area, approximately 20 inches by 24 inches.
  • Spray or pour disinfectant over the pad and surrounding areas, allowing the disinfectant to sit (“dwell”) for the appropriate time as listed on the chemical’s label.
  • Wipe up as much fluid as possible using the disinfectant-soaked spill pad.
  • Using double-bagged, yellow-colored trash bags, again following OSHA rules, place the disinfectant-soaked pad (or towels) in the garbage bags.
  • If the spill has gotten onto carpet or fabric chairs and furniture, an absorbent spill pad can also be used or, according to the CDC and NEHA, “kitty litter, baking soda or some other absorbent material.” They also advise not vacuuming the area.2
  • Clean surrounding areas such as the bottom of chairs, tables, walls, etc., with “soapy water,” according to NEHA, or an all-purpose cleaner. It is recommended to clean the area again with a disinfectant.
  • The CDC/NEHA adds that all high-touch areas such as ledges, light switches, railings, door knobs, also be cleaned the same way. These areas should then be rinsed so as not to leave any chemical residue.
  • At this point, the floor can be mopped clean. An all-purpose cleaner should be all that is needed; however, it can be cleaned again using a disinfectant. In either case, the mop head should be placed into an outside trash container.
  • Finally, properly remove gloves, face mask and gown and put these items in the trash bags as well. To properly remove gloves, pull the glove from the wrist toward the fingertips, turning the glove inside out. Then immediately wash hands.
  • Tie the trash liners and toss in an outside trash area.

Having a Kit Handy

The last thing restaurant owners/managers should have to do when a vomiting incident occurs is look for gloves, spill pads or cleanup supplies. Invariably, these items, if they are stored at all, are scattered, and workers must take the time to find them.

This is why it is highly recommended that restaurant owners/managers select what are termed “bodily fluid spill protection kits,” and leave them in a prominent, easy-to-access area.

A properly equipped kit includes the following items:

  • Disposable apron and disposable gown
  • A pair of shoe covers
  • Vinyl gloves, preferably three pairs
  • A combination mask/face shield
  • Yellow trash bags
  • Twist ties to secure the trash bags
  • A large absorbent pad
  • Disposable towels.

The kit should also include instructions not only on how to use the items inside but also for cleanup operations in general. Even for someone skilled at cleaning up a vomit incident, the instructions can be utilized as a reference just to make sure all steps are properly taken.

Some kits are refillable so as supplies run low they can be re-ordered. Also, some manufacturers have a postage-paid mail-back program in which the spill — vomit or any other type of hazardous fluid — can be mailed back to the manufacturer in a 1-gallon biohazard bucket; the manufacturer will ensure it is properly disposed of.

Can’t Keep Quiet

Some restaurant owners/managers don’t like to discuss vomit incidents. They, along with their cooking staff, may even take such an incident personally, as if there is something wrong with the food they are providing patrons.

In actuality, nothing could be further from the truth. It is far more likely the individual is sick already, and sometimes he or she does not even know it yet. The only thing that is important is cleaning the floor area and taking care of the situation as quickly, safely and effectively as possible.


1 Reported on November 3, 2016, by Andrew Gregory of The Mirror.

2 Not vacuuming in such situations is critical. Vacuuming may collect germs and bacteria, which may be released into the air and become airborne.


— Edward Sharek is category manager of facility-employee safety at DayMark Safety Systems, a manufacturer of a wide variety of products designed to enhance food, personal and facility safety. He can be reached at [email protected].

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