Setting the facts straight about The Joint Commission’s stance on food and drink

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A spirited discussion erupted over The Joint Commission’s role in prohibiting food in patient care areas: “Taking food and drink away from doctors and nurses is just cruel.”

The rumor that The Joint Commission is the enforcer of food and drink policies meant to starve clinicians has been around since I was working as a nurse in direct patient care capacities in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I’ve devoted plenty of time to clarifying my employer’s position on food and drink in nursing stations, and I’m sure the discussion will continue. Our surveyors say this issue is rarely scored, but it does occasionally come up in discussions during tracer activities.

While I found myself drawn into a few social media discussions in the wake of the blog post last month, I thought it would be most efficient to share the facts with as many clinicians as possible here on KevinMD.

The safety of clinician food and drink is governed by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OHSA) Bloodborne Pathogens and Sanitation Standards.

Fact 1. Joint Commission standards do not specifically address where staff can have food or drink in work areas.

Contrary to popular belief, Joint Commission standards do not specifically address where staff can have food or drink in work areas, including nursing and physician stations. Joint Commission Leadership (LD) Standard LD.04.01.01 requires that health care organizations follow licensure requirements, laws, and regulations, including OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens Standard.

Specifically, OSHA’s regulation prohibits the consumption of food and drink in areas where work involving exposure or potential exposure to blood or other potentially infectious or toxic material exists, or where the potential for contamination of work surfaces exists.

OSHA’s regulation also prohibits consuming or storing food in areas where blood or other potentially infectious or toxic materials are located or stored, including:

  • refrigerators
  • cabinets
  • counters

Fact 2. Health care organizations may determine safe spaces for food and drink that comply with an employer’s evaluation or exposure control plans.

It’s actually up to the health care organization to define and establish safe eating areas for staff members. OSHA does require that health care organizations evaluate the workplace to determine locations where potential contamination may occur and prohibit employees from eating or drinking in those areas.

An employer’s evaluation will determine what areas represent risks for contamination from food and drinks. Based on this assessment, organizations can designate a safe space for staff to eat or drink.

For example, an organization may determine that a particular nurse or physician station or other location is separated from work areas subject to contamination, and therefore, it is reasonable to anticipate that occupational exposure through the contamination of food and beverages or their containers is not likely.

Importantly, some areas will be strictly off-limits to food and drink containers. For example, staff should not be eating in areas where specimens are collected, processed, or stored. Keep in mind that while OSHA regulations apply to all health care facilities, states and local health departments may have additional requirements that health care organizations must comply with.

I’m always happy to answer questions on this topic. While The Joint Commission isn’t the “food police,” we do ask that organizations have a policy. As a first step, I encourage you to approach your organization and ask how they’ve shaped the facility’s policy. Many hospitals, including those with winning practices, have designated food/drink areas that are in compliance with OSHA policy. If there is any more information I can provide, please feel free to reach out to me via email.

Mark Pelletier is chief operating officer and chief nursing officer, The Joint Commission.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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