Why is handwashing important?

Table of Contents

The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has reinforced why personal hygiene is important. More than ever customers are conscious of hygiene when they eat out. They notice if staff do not wash their hands when preparing food. For food handlers, good personal hygiene has always been essential and it is now more important than ever.

Our bodies have trillions of bacteria living on or in us. To keep food safe food handlers must maintain the highest possible standards of personal hygiene. This includes effective handwashing. Why? Because we are a potential source of contamination that could contaminate food.

Handwashing is one of the most important actions that food handlers can take to prevent food contamination. Hands are often in contact with surfaces, food, equipment, utensils, cloths etc. and could therefore play a significant vehicle in cross-contamination.

How bacteria and viruses spread

Bacteria on body

From touching dirty surfaces or raw foods to shaking someone’s hand, there are many ways that hands can be a source of contamination. Did you know that effective handwashing by food handlers could actually prevent food poisoning? Regular handwashing is also important for a food business’ reputation. Customers really do notice when staff do not wash their hands and it can be very off-putting.

Correct handwashing techniques have been brought into the spotlight since the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the government has shown that it is a critical control measure in reducing COVID-19 transmission. Customers have become even more hygiene conscious. Besides preventing food poisoning, it’s important to remember that clean hands also help protect against other illnesses like colds, flu, sickness and diarrhoea.

Handwashing is one of the most important steps food handlers can take to keep themselves and others healthy and safe.

Bacteria and viruses are everywhere. They live on our skin, in our mouths, in our hair and even inside us. But bacteria don’t just live on our bodies; they live on everything we touch. 

The best way to prevent bacteria from spreading is to wash your hands regularly with antibacterial soap and clean water. 

When should you wash your hands?

When should food handlers wash their hands? Here are just a few examples:

Food handlers should wash their hands after:

  • Using the toilet
  • Taking a break
  • Handling raw food
  • Dealing with someone who is ill
  • Touching hair, nose or face
  • Smoking or eating
  • Coughing, sneezing or blowing the nose
  • Cleaning
  • Handling waste
  • Handling external packaging
  • Changing a plaster or dressing
  • Touching door handles, switches, crates, trollies etc

How to wash your hands

Handwashing Poster

The correct handwashing procedure is as follows:

  1. Wet hands under warm running water (water temperature should be 35°C to 45°C)
  2. Add antibacterial liquid soap and rub palms together
  3. Rub the backs of your hands
  4. Interlock your fingers and rub your hands together
  5. Rub the backs of your fingers against your palms
  6. Clean around your thumbs
  7. Rub your fingertips on the palm of your other hand
  8. Rinse your hands with warm water
  9. Dry your hands thoroughly with a disposable paper towel
  10. Use the disposable towel to turn off the tap and throw it away

Remember, always use a wash hand basin provided exclusively for wash hands. Using sinks that are used to wash food or clean dishes increases the risk of cross-contamination.

Video: How to wash your hands

What soap should I use?

The choice of soap used for handwashing in a food business is important.

Bar Soaps

Unfortunately, I see too many bars of soap on wash-hand basins in food businesses. The problem with bars of soap is that the bar picks up visible dirt. And bacteria can stay on the soap and be passed onto the next food handler.

Liquid Soaps

Liquid soaps come in two forms, plain soap and anti-bacterial, sometimes called anti-microbial soap.

Every food business should have anti-bacterial liquid soap, kept in a clean dispenser. These soaps provide effective cleaning and do not have the contamination risks associated with bar soap.

Using disposable towels to dry hands seems wasteful, is there another option?

Besides disposable towels, there are only really two other options for drying your hands, a clean towel and automatic hand dryers. Bacteria can spread on wet or damp hands therefore using disposable towels are the most hygienic method. The Food Standards Agency recommended the use of disposable towels.

The problem with using a dry hand towel is similar to bar soap, they are used by multiple people and end up becoming a source of bacterial contamination. If reusable hand towels are to be used they must be changed regularly and washed thoroughly.

Air hand dryers do not have this problem but do tend to result in water being blown onto the floor which could become a slipping hazard. Air hand dryers can also result in bacteria being blown onto surfaces. Especially if people have not washed their hands properly.

Both towels and air hand dryers also mean that you don’t have anything to use to turn off the tap, meaning you have to touch the tap which you previously touched with contaminated hands. Essentially, disposable towels are the most effective option in terms of food safety.

To avoid food handlers re-contaminating their hands by touching the tap to turn it off they should turn it off with a disposable towel. Alternatively, foot or knee operated or sensor taps could be installed. Taps must be cleaned and disinfected regularly as part of an effective cleaning and disinfection regime.

10 effective handwashing steps

Handwashing Poster

Effective hand hygiene is one of the most important ways to prevent cross-contamination and ultimately food poisoning. The image above provides step-by-step instructions on how to wash your hands effectively.

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