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The workplace canteen is a COVID-19 battleground… here's what you can do about it

Updated: Aug 30, 2020

In March 2020 the world went into lockdown. In modern history it is difficult to identify any singular event that has had such a profound impact on society and human behaviour as the Coronavirus.

The virus has upended almost every aspect of our daily lives - how we meet, greet, travel, shop, socialise, exercise, and entertain ourselves. But arguably, the most routine and challenging element of the "new normal" is how we share a meal - something we typically do several times a day, every day - while mitigating the spread of the virus.

Certainly, meals with family or friends in the COVID environment may have seen some changes, and dining out has become an altogether peculiar experience, but as businesses gradually adapt to the new normal and organisations invite their employees back to the workplace, how have they addressed the challenge of the canteen, and what more can be done?

Why are Workplace Canteens such a battleground for COVID?

The video clip below illustrates the stark reality of the transmissibility of a contagion by touch in a canteen-type setting.

While we still have much to learn about the virus, there are certain facts we definitely know about transmission - in an infected person, the virus exits the body by hitching a ride in tiny water droplets that leave the body when someone sneezes or coughs, or by touch transfer from the mouth or nose.

Some studies have shown that the virus can survive in the air for up to 3 hours and we know the virus can survive on surfaces for up to 24 hours or more! We also know that a significant percentage of cases are asymptomatic, and that asymptomatic carriers can also spread the virus. This makes congregating together for breaks or meals problematic, especially in the workplace.

Did you know?
A sneeze can generate as much as 40,000 water droplets, and talking for 5 minutes can produce as many water droplets as a cough - which is 3,000!

Here are some more factors that make the workplace canteen so challenging:

Traffic - everyone's gotta eat, right?

Typically, there are a limited number of communal spaces that serve food in a workplace. So, you've got enclosed, shared spaces, where people from all over the site congregate to eat, meet and socialise. Also, numbers in the area are typically uncontrolled and (certainly pre-COVID) anyone could use the canteen at any time.


People tend to be creatures of habit - they take their breaks at around the same time every day, their colleagues do the same, they like to sit in the same place. These behaviours can lead to queueing, and densely packed or overcrowded canteens, even if canteen capacity is large. Growing business frequently run short on canteen space quickly as the workforce increases and existing surge capacity dwindles.

Touching things

There are a lot of tactile surfaces in a canteen - door handles, vending machines, coffee machines, tables, chairs, trays, cutlery, crockery etc. Plenty of opportunity for a virus to linger on a surface only to be transferred onto someone's hand and in no time onto a face, or in the mouth, eye or nose (it happens!).

Consuming and Conversing

Obvious, I know, but food and drinks are consumed in canteens - some of these food items are stored in open areas like salad bars, hot food counters, and fridges. Also, a packed canteen can generate a lot of noise as people gather and chat - a lot of people together eating and talking loudly - that's a lot of open mouths and a lot of stray water droplets!

Sharing may not be caring

Canteens usually contain a lot of shared, washable or reusable items like cutlery, crockery, utensils, trays, and cookware. All it takes is one poorly washed item to spread a contagion!

Queueing and Loitering

Canteens typically have localised areas within where people congregate, chat or queue - the hot food counter, the (good) coffee machine, the water cooler. Social distancing can be challenging in these areas.


Government Guidance

There has been a multi-agency approach in Ireland to returning to work protocols post-lockdown with the HSA, the HSE, the NSAI, the Department of Health and the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation all contributing to an abundance of guidance.

We covered the most significant workplace regulations in a previous blog post but below are the ones that pertain to canteens.


  • organise workers into teams who consistently work and take breaks together. The teams should be as small as is reasonably practicable in the context of the work to be done

  • organise breaks in such a way as to facilitate maintenance of physical distancing during breaks

  • reorganise and rearrange working and break areas. For example, placing tables and chairs far enough apart in canteens

  • consider closing canteen facilities if public health measures including social distancing cannot be facilitated. If closing, provide information on delivery options

  • stagger canteen use and extend serving times

  • implement a queue management system with correct distance markings to avoid queues at food counters, tray return points and checkouts

So, what are organisations doing?

Phase 1 - Physical measures

  • increasing hand hygiene stations

  • mounting posters on doors and walls

  • signage on floors, tables and chairs

  • increased cleaning regimes

  • Moving or removing furniture

and also,

  • Discontinuation of communal food areas (e.g. salad bars)

  • individually wrapped food items (e.g. sandwiches, scones).

  • Disposable Cutlery, crockery and utensils

  • Table service

  • Remote food ordering

  • Payment by card (preferably contactless)

Phase 2 - Scheduling

  • Working from Home (where possible)

  • Staggering breaks

  • Cleaning between break periods

  • Restricted entry outside of staggered break times

All of these measures help to reduce numbers congregating in the canteen and at the same time, reduce or eliminate the opportunities a virus in the workplace has to spread. Hygiene, distance, cleaning, and staggering make the canteen a safe place - but they also make it a smaller place and many businesses are struggling with balancing implementation of measures while ensuring their staff, clients, contractors, and visitors have somewhere safe and convenient to take their break.

Leveraging Technology - Phase 3

Rigidly applying staggered breaks and restricting canteen access outside of certain hours is challenging to schedule, to enforce and to sustain. And constrained canteen capacity is leaving many businesses with little alternative than to direct their employees to take their breaks at their desks.

Luckily, many businesses have been finding creative solutions to increase the service offering on their sites and to free up both space and personnel in the process.

There are proven technologies in the