Random Handwashing is Risky Business

Where would food safety be without temperature monitoring? Engineers and process control professionals understood the growing need and built in an array of feedback mechanisms converting the science of Microbiology into simple instruments for the person-in-charge. This gives the operators process control ... for temperature.

Contrast temperature control with an equally important food safety intervention: handwashing. Here, no standards for clean hands or handwashing frequency exist, which means the process remains random. Is there any wonder poor hand hygiene remains the most frequently cited contributing factor in foodborne outbreak investigations?

Hand-hygiene monitoring technology is readily available and the design/build/remodel phase is the best time to make sure best practices are part of a facility because today's technology can significantly reduce the risk of financially devastating foodborne outbreaks.

Although the industry has not yet developed a standard for hand cleanliness, individual operators need to define what they consider to be The Ready-To-Serve Hand ® and how employees will achieve this status. Doing so helps define soap specifications, the need for a nailbrush and where hand sanitizers and gloving come into play.

From there, operators can define what equipment and supplies they require and in today's market they can choose from many. For example, a simulation of germs using tracer lotion and manual recording systems help employees visualize the invisible threat, document skill levels and serve as a periodic reminder.

A rapid measurement system based on ATP bioluminescence can now read hand cleanliness in real time. Easy and rapid read-out results also provide a valuable, high-impact feedback for food workers, allowing them to take immediate corrective actions. This also allows food workers to see the importance of handwashing and the result of their current handwashing techniques, and to practice until they consistently meet the operation's established standard. This technology is also useful to optimize glove changing and demonstrates the reasons for regularly changing gloves.

Operations should define and track a safe level for handwashing frequency. Critical factors to weigh include the level of at-risk people being served, menu, staff control and the facility itself. From there, the operator can determine when employees should wash their hands and translate that into a per-shift total. Operators can then use a digital counter in the soap dispenser to monitor results. Dispensers should include a programmed function whereby multiple doses of soap are counted as one handwash.

Operators should balance, not compromise, safe levels with productivity requirements. Optimization of food flows and employee ergonomics help define the savings available in productivity-wise layouts and equipment choices. For instance, if an operator's safe level for handwashing requires 100 full-time employees to wash their hands 15 times per shift, the facility can save 187,200 gallons of tempered water by changing out five manual faucets with electronic ones.

Auditing is deeply rooted in the foodservice culture, yet handwashing is barely represented. A lack of standards and measurement tools continues to hamper the effectiveness of operator hand-hygiene systems. In addition, despite being the No. 1 cause of cross-contamination in the kitchen, handwashing is often not subject to the rigors of a HACCP system because the metrics of clean hands are lacking.

Internal audits are a must in any quality-assurance operation. Repetitive kitchen activity can lead to boredom and slips in behavior. The worker becomes mentally detached, raising the risk of foodborne outbreaks. If not promptly identified, the gap between the written procedure and the employee's action widens.

Auditing software solutions with timely data collection organize key interventions. They simplify a complex quality-assurance process, accelerate the flow of information, shorten the timeline of corrective action and lower operator risk.

Start with a set of mock-reports that keep individual stakeholders informed on the status of hand hygiene at appropriate time intervals. Ideally, data is automatically collected, feeding easily read reports in a format integrated with other key measurements of success. One common element in these snapshots will compare compliance against standards and prior years to give all an instant indicator on continuous improvement.

What gets measured gets done. Handwashing measurement is a management solution for the perplexing unresolved hand-hygiene issue faced by many operators. Operators should work with their supply chain partners to create an enduring system that replaces random behaviors with integrated best practices that achieve safe levels.