Ensuring that employees maintain a proactive and responsible attitude to hand cleanliness is worth a great deal to companies in food processing and production. This can be in regards to financial aspects- a contamination of food materials could cripple a company financially, as well as the damage to reputation that may result from poor cleanliness. In addition poor hand hygiene is a significant factor in individual illness; with employee illness hampering productivity. The costs associated with employee illness and the absences associated with such are also surprisingly high. While the vast majority of food production companies have in place a proactive approach to hand hygiene, ensuring employees themselves actually abide by hand hygiene practices can be more difficult.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that workers handling food would be proactive in terms of ensuring hand hygiene, deeming hand washing initiatives and education campaigns unnecessary. Yet research from the Environmental Health Specialists Network (ESH-Net), the collaborative forum of environmental health specialists associated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), questions whether sufficient hand hygiene compliance is as widespread as one may have thought. ESH-Net found in one study that 12 percent of food workers had been into work despite suffering from a sickness bug and/or diarrhea1. Illnesses such as these can spread through a working environment very quickly and one sick employee can spiral into many more ill workers in a short period of time.
Other studies focusing on the economic cost of workplace absence due to sickness in the United Kingdom demonstrate the financial issues associated with avoidable illnesses. A report carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in conjunction with Simplyhealth found that the average cost of employee absence is £673 per employee, per year, with two-thirds of cases involving short-term (fewer than 7 day) absences2. The British Health and Safety Executive (HSE) put the annual cost of employee illness at more than £12billion3.
The potential for the spread of infection from an ill employee coming into work is high. It is also exacerbated by the fact that a large minority of workers do not practice adequate hand hygiene. The ESH-Net found that the average worker in facilities where food is handled will carry out an activity which would require hand washing before and after nine times an hour. The same ESH-Net report discovered that only 27 percent of workers fulfilled their hand hygiene obligations in carrying out these activities. It is also true that in many cases the quality of hand washing is insufficient and not enough to properly kill germs4. The guidelines for proper hand washing recommend the use of hot water and soap and for the whole process to take at least 20 to 25 seconds. One recommendation is that a sufficient hand washing session should take the same amount of time as singing the Happy Birthday song twice. Despite this it is clear that many people do not wash their hands for anywhere near as long as these guidelines. A report from Michigan State University found the average time spent washing hands was barely 6 seconds5.
Another piece of research suggested that 95 percent of people do not wash their hands to an adequate standard6. In addition to insufficient time spent washing hands, the efficacy of hand washing techniques employed by many people can be questionable. The Michigan State University report detailed how more than a third of people did not use soap when washing their hands, with 1 in 10 not washing their hands at all.
Although these data outline public hand hygiene practices, not specifically the practices of food workers, the findings still paint a worrying picture of ignorance of the dangers of the spread of germs or a lack of concern afforded to hand hygiene. This is especially clear when we consider how data indicating that in the food industry 89 percent of instances where workers were the source of food contamination, such contamination originated from the spread of germs directly from the hands of workers to the food itself.7
Many food facilities do attempt to tackle the issue of hand hygiene amongst its workforce, with measures including hand washing ‘stations’ situated before entrances to production areas. Other measures include minimising direct hand contact with raw food by using utensils and wearing disposable gloves. However the latter measure, disposable gloves, can cause more problems than it solves with people forgetting that some germs can be spread on the gloves just the same as on bare hands. The frequency to which hands should be cleaned, and the number of different situations that warrant hand washing can also be underestimated. Workers should clean their hands whenever it is required, not merely at regular intervals.
The installation of full-compliance, non-optional hand hygiene measures has been a success for many food companies. The most significant benefit of products which provide this service is clear- they cannot be missed or bypassed, therefore helping to ensure far greater levels of hand hygiene.
Some criticize hand sanitizers, arguing that it discourages thorough hand washing. It may be argued that points such as these misunderstand the role hand sanitizers play in hand hygiene. A proactive and effective approach to hand hygiene should combine comprehensive hand washing with sanitizing. This is why hand sanitizing products in places such as corridors can be useful as they act as a clean barrier in places where hand washing is not feasible. Hand sanitizers are most effective as an addition to hand washing, and should never be regarded as a stand-alone alternative. Using sanitizers alone is insufficient but in conjunction with thorough hand washing, it makes for is an effective hand hygiene regimen. Full-compliance products are already available. Their specific function varies from specialist hygienic door handles which dispense gel upon grip, to badges and other technology that reminds workers to wash their hands and notes when they do not, as well as simple products such as specialist self-cleaning sticker material.
Any company that includes aspects of work where food is handled face a difficult task in ensuring proper hand hygiene. Human error on the part of the worker, such as forgetting to wash hands before entering sensitive areas, or failing to wash hands to an adequate standard can result in serious consequences. This is why full-compliance products are becoming far more popular. To continue to make progress in fighting contamination in the food industry there must be a culture change amongst hygiene managers in addition to food workers as a whole towards ensuring, rather than merely encouraging hand hygiene. When hand hygiene is made compulsory the risks of human error become far less significant.
- CIPD Absence Management Report 2011, http://www.cipd.co.uk/hr-resources/survey-reports/absence-management-2011.aspx
- hse.gov.uk June 2011
- http://msutoday.msu.edu/_/pdf/assets/2013/hand-washing-study-1.pdf http://www.wgtacc.com/wash-hands-after-bathroom.html