A Return To Mom’s Rules

Mom was right for more reasons than she ever realized. Her insistence to “wash your hands” led to good habits, likely lasting 6-7 years. At that point an attack of self-reliance coupled with a touch of a Superman complex changed handwashing behaviors. Kids were exposed to other kids, older kids, and adults demonstrating their daily disregard for handwashing.

handwashing-scale.jpgEvery cold and flu that followed was a lost opportunity to connect handwashing with the spread of disease. This escaped even mom who was likely lulled into the popular belief that colds and flus couldn’t be avoided and had little to do with handwashing. After all, these maladies are respiratory . . . The 2009 H1N1 Swine Flu is the latest example. The flywheel of conventional thinking is all about vaccines. Good handwashing will do more for containing the spread of the flu as summarized in this statement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Handwashing is the single most important means of preventing the spread of infection.

Soon the teens were preparing and serving food for others at the nation’s restaurants and cafeterias, immersed again in environments where the need for good handwashing didn’t match up with the behaviors. Fellow workers scoffed at the few diligent handwashers while they witnessed missed handwashes by the very person who trained them.

Raising bacteria and viruses

Handwashing is mission-critical where food is prepared, stored and served. Germs, largely bacteria and viruses, depend on hands for their own survival as they are moved around until they find a safe harbor to multiply. Bacteria love moist heat and can double in numbers in just twenty minutes, raising their potential to inflict suffering and even death. Viruses need a host and don’t multiply until they find one. Both bacteria and viruses share certain key traits. Their survival on inanimate surfaces makes many a foodservice surface a transit station, an intersection for them and the hands of service, foodservice.

Both bacteria and viruses are invisible in two ways. First, they are so small and concealed, not only can’t you see them but you can’t feel them or smell them. Forget the common standard for cleaning surfaces: Clean to sight and touch.

Second, they both use some of the hardier more resistant humans as carriers, a microbial Trojan horse. These folks show no symptoms while they shake your hand, prepare your food, or care for your parent in a nursing home.

Why Wash

Foodborne illness takes its human toll along with a prolonged outflow of cash. Both will vary by pathogenic source. The most common troublemaker, Norovirus, gets our attention initially as our digestive system is a first responder and violently rejects the intruder, hurling everything it can as fast as it can out of its two primary paths. Undigested food takes the high road and partially processed goes for the lower hatch. Continued rounds of diarrhea and vomiting quickly dehydrate the body.

Most healthy people will call this attack the 24-hour flu.  Norovirus often goes unreported unless it affects multiple people from more than one family. When an outbreak occurs, health department’s epidemiologists are called in.

Norovirus is best known for its power to send massive cruise ships back to port ahead of schedule. It’s not normally a killer.

E. coli represents the killer-class of pathogens. Survivors of this kidney-destroying bacterium can face a lifetime of pain and suffering, usually a shortened life. A survivor of the watershed Foodmaker outbreak in 1993 faces a shortened life and will be unable to bear children.

When to Wash

We are frequently asked for a standard regarding frequency of handwashing. How many times per day? This depends primarily on five variables:

  1. Your own personal health
  2. The health, the immune systems of the people with whom you are in contact
  3. The number of people you will contact, directly or indirectly
  4. Your “caring for others” factor, the moral standard
  5. The tolerance of risk and poor handwashing by your employer

For some restaurants, largely quick-serve establishments with minimal raw food handling, minimums may be as low as one hand wash per employee hour. For the more discerning risk-adverse casual dining operator, three hand washes per hour is a good standard.

Handwashing frequency should not be established purely by the clock. Food workers must understand and connect their own behaviors as the triggers to handwashing. The need to wash is driven by specific tasks, task changes and personal behaviors.

handwashing-break-chain.jpgWhere to Wash

Restrooms are important handwashing stations but they are also a troubling source of cross-contamination. The most common route of foodborne outbreaks starts with invisible fecal matter, fecal-hand-oral.

Ill people are heavy users of washrooms, endangering all who follow. Should those accidental encounters reach the food flow, one unwashed hand can affect many. This restroom handwash is at the top of the priority list.

Kitchen handwashing is an obvious must, starting with the return of each employee regardless of his or her reason for leaving. For those returning from the restroom, this means an immediate second wash. This is a matter of monitoring and control.

How to Wash

Everyone knows how to wash their hands. Everyone has been doing this for years by the time they enter a professional kitchen. This level of experience actually becomes a barrier to understanding the difference required in professional handwashing. The splash-n-dash handwash is often seen as sufficient until we visually and personally experience the difference, aided by using tracer lotion and a UV light.

The steps of a professional handwash are:

  1. Wet/Pre-rinse with warm water
  2. Take liquid or foam soap
  3. Lather aggressively for 15-20 seconds
  4. Rinse thoroughly (to avoid drying of the skin)
  5. Dry with a single-use paper towel

If faucets are manual, it is recommended to turn off the water with the paper towel. A much better solution is the use of electronic faucets for their hygiene advantage but also the labor saving speed factor and water savings. Nearly one gallon of heated water is saved for each handwash.

Fused-bristle nailbrushes speed effective washing and should be used for all handwashes done on returning to the kitchen.

Adding the application of hand sanitizer is another performance booster to consider, particularly when serving the immune compromised. Children, the elderly, pregnant women and those taking medicines for ongoing conditions lead this group, estimated as 20% of the general population.

No-Water Hand Sanitizing & Cleansing

The Blackberry/cell phone/multi-tasking/grazing public increasingly demands foodservice that fits smoothly into their away-from-home trail. Foodservice situations develop far from a water supply and a handsink. While alcohol hand sanitizers are proven resources at these locations, those people preparing and serving food and beverage need to add a cleaning step by using the SaniTwice® technique. Hand sanitizer is applied in a heavier dose and scrubbing for 15-20 seconds follows, with plenty of friction to loosen contaminants. While the hands are still wet, this first application is wiped off with a paper towel, sending all the suspended soil and germs into the waste receptacle. A sec ond application of hand sanitizer follows, killing any residual pathogens.

This SaniTwice intervention is particularly important for Norovirus and H1N1 virus control as these troublemakers come in the front door of an establishment via ill customers. New hand sanitizers are now available, developed specifically for these front-door pathogens.


Remember Mom … and the CDC: Handwashing is the single most important means of preventing the spread of infection.

Hand hygiene’s best practices pay food safety dividends, protecting your health and the health of your business.