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Hand Washing: Sanitation That Saves Lives

AnnMargaret Dwyer
Originally Published in Food Safety

We can all agree that handwashing is important. We know that washing your hands prevents you from getting sick, helps prevent the spread of germs, and helps keep our food safe. But time and time again we see people choose to not wash their hands, knowing full well they should be. Why does this happen? It is important to understand why people do not wash their hands, that way more effective techniques can be created to enhance your facility’s handwashing culture.

The Psychology of Not Washing Your Hands

Many people do not wash their hands after they go to the bathroom. But why? Pol Rodellar from VICE chose to ask people why exactly they don’t partake in this sanitary process in the article “People Explain Why They Don’t Wash Their Hands After Peeing”. A few responses to note were:

“People just wash their hands because that’s what they see in films. I sometimes do it in front of people who I saw just washed their hands-I suppose it’s out of respect for others. I guess I don’t do it for myself, but for them.”

Sara, 26

“It’s a fact that washing our hands is just something we do to fit into society. This morning, while I was using the urinal, a colleague who had just finished peeing started thoroughly washing his own hands. So when I finished, I had to do the same so that guy- who continued to wash and dry them as if he had just come out of a mine – didn’t think I was some filthy urchin. So here’s to wasting water and soap and a disposable paper towel just because I can’t be bothered to explain my toilet habits to my colleagues.”

Jordi, 30

“I normally wash my hands before I pee because they’re always dirty due to my job. I only wash my hands afterwards if I splash myself. And to be honest, I’ve stopped worrying about contracting things down there.”

Martin, 28

“I don’t have time to be constantly washing myself. I actually think we all clean ourselves too much – it can’t be good for our skin. Our society is too sterilized and it’s not natural.”

Lucia, 22

But Why?

In a study conducted by scientist Thomas Berry and his colleagues on a university campus, Berry wanted to analyze whether or not gender played a role in handwashing behaviors in the bathroom. The team observed 170 subjects in a public restroom and found that the action of hand washing and for how long were based on the activities the subjects conducted in the restroom. In the study, 91% of women washed their hands. This was attributed to all the women using a cubicle to go to the bathroom. When looking at the men, 87.5% of men washed their hands when using the cubicle but only 59.4% washed their hands when using the urinal. The conclusion was that to the subjects, going to the bathroom in the cubicle warranted more hand washing.

In addition to whether each subject washed their hands, those that did were timed. An important note is that the median time for handwashing showed both men and women washing their hands for less than ten seconds. This is troublesome since the Center for Disease Control (CDC) suggested time for handwashing is 20 seconds. This study shows that if your staff is more likely to use a urinal when going to the bathroom, a greater emphasis on handwashing procedures must be put in place to protect food from being contaminated.

When to Wash Your Hands

The more someone washes their hands, the less likely they are to spread germs and disease. In a manufacturing facility all employees should wash their hands before or after the following:

  • Before beginning work
  • Before preparing food
  • Before handling an injury such as a cut
  • After using the bathroom
  • After sneezing or coughing
  • After touching your hair or face
  • After taking out the trash
  • After using cleaning materials
  • Before changing jobs handling raw and ready to eat food

How to Wash Your Hands

As directed by the Center for Disease Control(CDC):

“Follow these five steps every time.

Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.

Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.

Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.

Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.

Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them”.

The Science Behind Handwashing

Not washing your hands after going to the bathroom is a leading cause of the spread of infections and diseases. Feces is a common source of Salmonella, E.coli 0157, and norovirus, and can also cause certain respiratory infections. “A single gram of human feces—which is about the weight of a paper clip—can contain one trillion germs”. For this reason, in your facility, it is important to ensure that handwashing practices always remain front of mind by having handwashing diagrams with instructions at every hand washing station.

In addition to germs being spread because hands are not washed after using the bathroom, germs can also spread is animal feces inadvertently on raw meat. Cross-contamination and poor sanitation practices can cause these invisible germs to spread.

The Impact Hand Washing Can Have

“Teaching people about handwashing helps them and their communities stay healthy. Handwashing education in the community:

Reduces the number of people who get sick with diarrhea by 23-40%

Reduces diarrheal illness in people with weakened immune systems by 58%

Reduces respiratory illnesses, like colds, in the general population by 16-21%

Reduces absenteeism due to gastrointestinal illness in schoolchildren by 29-57%

https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/why-handwashing.html

It is not easy to establish a handwashing program that works. To do so you need an engaged staff who feels a sense of ownership for your company’s food safety culture and understands that they are a determining factor in whether your company produces safe food. Hand washing training and seminars need to be part of your “always-on” food safety program because ultimately your entire staff affects your end product and the bottom-line.