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Ready, steady, wash your hands

29 April 2019

Foodborne illnesses are one of the biggest threats that the food industry faces, putting businesses, workers, and customers at risk. Paul Jakeway, marketing director at SC Johnson Professional, explains why hand hygiene should be a fundamental part of an organisation’s food safety culture and how businesses should look to implement stricter hand washing protocols to reduce the risk of cross contamination.

Food scandals have often hit the national headlines, with businesses and their workers consistently being connected to foodborne illness outbreaks. According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), it is estimated that up to 5.5 million people in the UK are affected by food poisoning each year. With hands being the main vehicle for transporting bacteria to high risk foods, food handlers are consistently implicated in these incidents, with 36% of outbreaks said to be as a result of poor personal hygiene. 

To some, hand washing might seem like a simple and obvious everyday step, but thousands of people in the UK are still suffering from foodborne illnesses that could have been prevented with better hand hygiene. Therefore, food premises and food handlers have a pivotal role to play in reducing the risk of foodborne infectious diseases and have a responsibility to manage food safety in order to protect themselves and their customers. So, how exactly are these illnesses spread and what can food businesses do to ensure they are running a safe and effective operation? 

Bacteria basics

Bacteria can stay alive on hands for up to three hours so keeping hands clean is one of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others, with many diseases and conditions – such as Norovirus, Salmonella and Hepatitis A – being spread by not washing hands for long enough or thoroughly enough with soap and clean, running water. 

Germs can get onto hands if workers touch any objects that are harbouring bacteria. There are a number of other occasions when hands must be washed in a food-processing environment:

• Immediately before food handling.

• After touching your face, nose or hair.

• After touching a cut or wound.

• After using the toilet.

`• After coughing, sneezing or using a tissue.

• After changing tasks, especially if switching between working with raw meat and working with ready to eat or cooked foods.

• After handling refuse.

• After touching dirty surfaces.

• After picking something up off the floor.

• After touching items such as phones, light switches, door handles, cash registers and money.

• After eating and drinking.

What’s more, if workers are using gloves, it is important to note that gloves alone are not sufficient to prevent the transmission of germs so when gloves are used, it is vital that hands are washed before using gloves and after glove removal. 

How to wash your hands 

From a young age, we are taught the importance of washing our hands to prevent illness but how many of us were taught the correct technique? For food workers in particular, thorough and rigorous hand washing steps are crucial. The NHS and The World Health Organisation advise that washing your hands properly should take as long as singing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice (around 20 seconds) and should incorporate the following best practice approach: 

• Wet your hands with water (warm or cold).

• Apply enough soap to cover all over your hands.

• Rub hands palm to palm.

• Rub the back of your left hand with your right palm with interlaced fingers. Repeat with the other hand.

• Rub your palms together with fingers interlaced. 

• Rub the backs of your fingers against your palms with fingers interlocked. 

• Clasp your left thumb with your right hand and rub in rotation. Repeat with your left hand and right thumb.

• Rub the tips of your fingers in the other palm in a circular motion, going backwards and forwards. Repeat with the other hand.

• Rinse hands with water (warm or cold).

• Dry thoroughly, ideally with a disposable towel.

• Use the disposable towel to turn off the tap.

Equipment and facilities 

By law, every food business needs to have adequate hand washing and drying facilities for its workers. According to the Royal Society for Public Health, there needs to be a sufficient number of wash basins designated for hand washing only and these should be located near toilets and entrances to food handling areas. In addition, depending on the size of the food area, extra wash basins may be needed to reduce contamination across separate activities, such as handling raw foods and preparing cooked foods. 

Wash basins should have hot and cold running water and include mixer taps to control temperature and prevent scalding. Ideally, the taps should not be hand-operated. This helps to avoid contamination after the hands have been washed. Materials for cleaning hands, such as soap, and a means of hygienically drying hands, such as paper towels, are also critical. 

Alcohol-based hand sanitisers can be used in place of hand washing if hands are not visibly soiled or if soap and water is not available. In addition to improved spreadability, foaming formulations have been shown to provide superior compliance and efficacy. The effectiveness of alcohol hand sanitisers combined with hand washing, results in an average 20% to 40% reduction in infections.

Education and training 

Education and training are vital elements of any food safety procedure in all sectors of the food industry. All workers should understand the basic principles of how hand hygiene can impact food safety and what steps they should be taking to minimise the risk to themselves, their co-workers and customers. 

Food handling staff should receive ongoing training and instruction in food safety and personal hygiene and should undertake assessments and refresher courses on a regular basis. It is also important for managers to draw attention to, and repeatedly emphasise, the need for workers to report illness to a manager as soon as it occurs to prevent it spreading or contaminating co-workers and the workplace.  

Effective communication

Once adequate facilities and appropriate levels of training have been provided, it is important to maintain hygiene levels through ongoing communication with your workers. Posters, guides and easy-to-follow how-to steps throughout your premises are ideal ways to reiterate the importance of hand hygiene in your business, as are updates and reminders in team meetings, internal emails and HR collateral. 

Good hand hygiene is absolutely crucial within the food industry and failing to comply could result in contaminated food entering the food chain. As well as the logistical costs of removing the contamination, this can lead to bad publicity for your business and potentially legal action – with the average large compensation claim in Europe costing businesses more than £7m. Following these recommended procedures is vital in limiting the transfer of foodborne illnesses and fighting against cross contamination within your organisation.