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Hand Hygiene and Food Safety

Patrick Boshell
June 25, 2013


Food Safety and Hand Hygiene

Did you know that 10 million bacteria would fit very comfortably on something as small as the head of a pin?  Given the right conditions, those 10 million bacteria would double every 20 minutes.  Unfortunately, these invisible germs are passed around our communities easily with the workplace being the main recipient. Although we are unable to see bacteria, the fact remains our hands are responsible for the spread of an estimated 80% of common infectious diseases. 


According to the Public Health Agency of Canada an estimated 10 million people suffer food-related illness every year.  The vast majority of these illnesses last a short time and cause minor symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.  Controlling this problem is difficult because bacteria may survive food processing or foods may become contaminated during preparation, cooking or storage. 


While there are many occasions food can become contaminated during processing, 40% of all food-borne illness outbreaks are a direct result of hand cross contamination.  This often happens when food workers fail to wash their hands effectively after using the bathroom (microbes from the employees’ gastrointestinal tract are transferred to food).  With food being produced and processed at a higher volume than in the past, there is a greater chance of foodborne bacteria being spread to a large number of people.


Reducing the Risk of Foodborne Illness


Personal hygiene, hand washing, employee illness awareness and training are key factors in limiting the transfer of disease from known sources of contamination.  Unwashed hands are considered the most significant pathway to pathogen transfer and food safety experts advise hand washing procedures should be implemented and strictly monitored.


Proper hand hygiene requires three components: 1) a proper protocol, 2) an appropriate hand washing or cleansing agent, and 3) compliance (execution at frequent enough interval to prevent infection). 


Hand washing, when done correctly, is the single most effective way to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.  Good hand washing technique is easy to learn and can significantly reduce the spread of infectious diseases. High risk areas such as food preparation require the highest level of compliance. When teaching hand washing remember to always follow best practice.


  • Place your hands together under water (warm if possible)
  • Apply soap
  • Rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds
  • Wash hands thoroughly, including wrists, palms, back of hands and under the fingernails
  • Clean dirt from under the fingernails
  • Rinse the soap from your hands
  • Dry hands completely with clean toweling (good quality, absorbent paper towel helps to remove germs)
  • Pat your skin rather than rubbing to avoid chapping and cracking
  • If soap and water are not available, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer

Common sense indicates that hands should be washed before handling food, but there are many other occasions when hands must be washed when working in a food-processing environment.


  • Immediately before food handling;
  • After touching body parts’;
  • After using washrooms;
  • After coughing, sneezing (into sleeve/crook of elbow and not into hands) or using a tissue;
  • After changing tasks, especially if switching between working with raw meat and working with ready to eat or cooked foods;
  • After handling money, garbage or  tools/equipment;
  • After touching dirty surfaces;
  • After picking up something from the floor;
  • After engaging in any activity that contaminates hands.

In many cases, food workers have specific symptoms of a communicable disease, but continue to work with exposed food. In fact, 30 to 50% of all persons, even healthy ones carry the bacteria staphylococcus aureus, usually on the skin or in the mouth.  Most of the time these bacteria do not harm, however, a break in the skin, burn, or other injury may allow the bacteria to penetrate the body’s defenses and cause infection. 

Download Hand Washing Posters

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can be used in place of hand washing if hands are not visibly soiled or if soap and water is not available.  In addition to improved spreadability, foaming formulations have been shown to provide superior compliance and efficacy.  The effectiveness of alcohol hand sanitizers combined with hand washing results in an average 20% to 40% reduction in infections.


Education and training are vital elements of a food safety program in all sectors of the food industry.  In any organization, however small, the instruction provided should ensure that all employees understand the basic principles of food safety and their own responsibilities in that respect within an organization.  Food-handling staff should receive instruction in food safety and personal hygiene and should be required to undergo a test of their knowledge of the subject.  Refresher courses should be given periodically through employment.  Particular attention should be drawn to the need to report illness to the supervisor as soon as it occurs.


Although most people recover, foodborne illnesses can result in chronic health problems in 2 to 3% of cases.  Health Canada estimates the annual cost related to these illnesses is between 12 and 14 billion. The good news is that infection control practices and programs do not have to be difficult to implement and manage.  When it comes to food safety and reducing the spread of foodborne illness, education and awareness remains our best defense. 

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