Clean Hands, Safe Eats: Considerations to Improve Handwashing Compliance

In my blog earlier this month, I discussed a bit of the art and science behind handwashing. If you are reading a blog post about handwashing, you likely don’t need to be convinced of the importance of the simple act of washing your hands. Even outside of the foodservice environment, it is a vital practice that helps protect the health of the public. Yet, many foodservice employees fail to wash their hands properly and at the correct times.  If getting employees to follow basic hand hygiene recommendations has given you stress, I hope to give you some pointers within the blog to help you improve compliance with handwashing recommendations.

Before the mid-1800s, many people died because we did not understand basic hand hygiene. It wasn’t until the 18070s that surgeons began to wash their hands before a surgery, but surprisingly it wasn’t until the 1980s when hand hygiene was officially incorporated into the healthcare system in the United States, with the publishing of the first national hand hygiene guidelines. Hand hygiene and the use of soap is still a major issue across the world.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that handwashing reduces diarrheal illnesses in people with weaking immune systems by as much as 58%, can reduce incidence of respiratory illnesses, such as colds, by 16% to 21%, and can reduce absenteeism due to gastrointestinal issues in school children by as much as 57%.

Although the benefits of handwashing are clear, we continue to see this as a major issue in our fight against foodborne illness. Personal hygiene has remained one of the top three causes of foodborne illness in the United States for decades, and handwashing is a critical component of personal hygiene. In one study conducted by USDA, participants did not even attempt or did not wash their hands properly in 95% of observations. In other research that I have been involved with, 59.4% of retail food employees did not even attempt to wash their hands at the proper times, and almost 20% of those remaining at least tried to wash their hands but did so incorrectly.

So why do employees fail to wash their hands or attempt to wash but do so improperly?  Some will tout that handwashing causes irritation and dryness, that sinks are not always conveniently located, that the sinks lack proper supplies, or that they are too busy serving the guest and simply don’t have time.

Although the benefits of handwashing are clear, we continue to see this as a major issue in our fight against foodborne illness.

For years, those of us in the food safety community have relied on training to solve all of our woes with adherence to proper food safety.  But training only teaches the knowledge and does little to change behavior – and we’ve done the research to prove this. Instead, talk to your employees to determine what the root cause is. Focus on their attitudes, the social norms in your operation, and issues that might control their behavior.

Do employees believe handwashing is important? Do they prioritize other parts of their job – like serving the guest – over food safety or handwashing? This was an issue I had early in my career.  Our staff thought it was more important to focus on ticket times rather than proper hygiene. We needed to change what we, as managers, prioritize and how we communicate with our staff in order to correct this issue.

What is the environment like in your kitchen? Do employees support each other in their efforts to follow food safety practices?  We’ve heard from employees who were made fun of because they washed their hands too much.  Employees need to support the practices you are trying to establish and if not, will revert to the “norm” in that environment.  This is why we talk so much about the food safety culture in each business – the belief that nothing is so important that it trumps our food safety procedures.

Are there impediments to employees washing their hands properly?  Are there ample supplies of soap and single-use towels available?  Are sinks in proper working order with water that reaches a comfortable handwashing temperature? Usually, we find that what is occurring in reality is less of an issue versus what employees believe is occurring. For example, most foodservice operations have easily accessible handwashing facilities, and most health inspectors look for this during their inspection.  But, if employees believe it is not convenient, we may need to focus on why they believe this to help encourage proper handwashing.

In foodservice operations, clean hands are integral to providing safe food for our guests. By prioritizing education, improving employee attitudes, creating a safe and supportive environment through a food safety culture, and removing actual or perceived barriers, we can improve handwashing compliance and create a culture where handwashing is a compliment and not an impediment to safe food. Risk Nothing.