Hand hygiene is one of the important elements of any food safety programme. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that up to 80% of foodborne illness cases are still linked to poor hand hygiene. So given the high stakes, how do you make sure your whole organisation is engaged and striving to achieve hand washing best practice at all times?
How to improve hand hygiene in food processing
Based on our research in this area, we know that establishing best practice needs to go beyond simply setting objectives. You need to do much more than that to enhance your hand hygiene culture – starting with these seven essentials:
1. Establish hand hygiene expectations and leadership
First of all, you need to provide food hygiene documentation that sets out your hand hygiene practice standards. We also recommend that senior leaders play a key part in setting the standards and drive them home with their own values and expectations. Leaders must motivate and inspire their staff to practise good hand hygiene. For that to happen, they need to be involved in it from the start.
2. Communicate your requirements to staff
Once expectations are formalised, it’s important to communicate them clearly to staff. Simply circulating the documentation isn’t enough. Communication should be made clear via meetings, reviews and all other opportunities.
3. Train staff outside the classroom
Training in hand hygiene should be provided for everyone in a food business, including the most senior managers. To make sure it is as effective as possible, the training should not be classroom based. It is more important that the training aims to support sustainable behavioural change. For this reason, your hand hygiene training or supervision is best performed on site at the point of practise using an appropriate format for skills training.
4. Show your commitment and support towards hand washing best practice
This needs to happen on two levels: management commitment and individual commitment. Management can show its commitment through the time and money that it is willing to invest in hand hygiene. Individual food handler commitment is a different issue and needs to be encouraged by management. If managers promote a positive hand hygiene culture, where people feel safe to discuss things and good hand hygiene is the norm, then it’s more likely they will feel motivated and committed to maintaining and enforcing hand hygiene for the long term.
5. Assess, monitor and think about leveraging new technology
Next, you will need on-going assessment and monitoring to help you determine if your hand hygiene culture is positive and whether training and communication has been effective. Things you can assess include frequency of hand washing, frequency of glove wearing and monitoring of paper towel usage.
In the future, it is hoped that automated systems and wireless sensors will also help to further promote standards by monitoring usage anonymously – for example, by monitoring staff entry into a washroom and correlating the data with soap or dryer usage. Some studies suggest this can reduce non-compliance by up to 50%.
6. Provide positive hand washing consequences
Evidence from many studies suggests peoples’ behaviour is influenced by the perception of what will happen as a consequence of their actions. Consequences can be broadly split into positive and negative consequences. For example, in the food industry, undue emphasis is often placed on the latter – i.e. punishment for noncompliance rather than rewards for compliance. We recommend that performance will be improved by taking the opposite view and providing recognition and praise for good compliance.
7. Drive continuous improvement
Finally, we always say to customers that good hand hygiene is a journey not a destination. It’s important to realise that the starting point of that journey is significant, but not definitive. If a company starts with a positive hand hygiene culture, efforts will still be required to maintain this. Starting with a poorer culture presents a different set of challenges, but on the positive side gains can be substantial.
Overall, the most important thing to recognise is that attempting to improve or maintain high levels of effective hand hygiene will be ongoing for the life of any company. Introducing a continuous cycle of improvement – such as the one we have suggested here – is a particularly good idea if you want to make sure your improvement is both well planned and responsive to change. Ultimately, it will give you the best chance of creating and maintaining a high standard of hand hygiene that lasts for the long term.