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Gloves and Hand Hygiene for Food Safety

October 10, 2012
Gloves and Hand Hygiene

By Dr. Ron Wasik

A recent review article about the merits of gloves in the food industry brings out several interesting facts. The piece was written by a group from Michigan State University in Lansing and published in the August 2010 issue of the Journal of Food Protection.


Our Bodies


The amount of bacteria we harbour on our bodies and the degree to which we shed these bacteria from the surface of our bodies may surprise you. Some scientists estimate that our lower arms (finger tips to lower elbows) are host to as many as 10 million bacteria, with 90 per cent of these on our hands.


As new methods are developed to identify different types and strains of bacteria, scientists have discovered that there is a great diversity of bacteria living happily on us. One study reported finding 4,742 different strains after sampling only 51 hands, Streptococcus and Staphylococcus being some of the dominant species. Women also have a higher diversity of bacteria than men.  


Our skin cells are constantly being shed. As they leave our body, each cell can carry anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 viable bacteria. For the food processing industry, this can be a major problem. Although mandatory in our business, hand washing has its limitations.  A number of publications have reported finding few differences between washing with antimicrobial and regular soaps. One reported that, even after careful scrubbing, bacteria will repopulate themselves in five to six days. So it’s easy to understand why gloves are used extensively in the food industry.




Gloves made from either latex, rubber and non-latex materials such as nitrile or vinyl are commonly used in the food industry and do offer added protection, but there are a number of variables that determine their effectiveness. Those who argue for gloves say they protect hands from harsh chemicals and hazardous situations; protect foods from direct hand contact; are easier to monitor, audit and enforce than hand washing thoroughness and frequency; can be used to cover bandages; can improve grip; and are effective in preventing cross contamination.


Those who argue against glove use point out that they can limit finger dexterity; can contaminate foods if not used properly; provide a false sense of security, encouraging poor hygiene practices; are known to have pinhole leaks which permit bacteria to migrate from our hands onto foods; can cause skin irritations which discourage proper glove use; and can fall apart, introducing foreign matter which may not be detected by conventional methods.


The theme that resonates in the “nay” camp is that gloves can do more harm than good if not used properly. So to get the benefit of gloves, follow these guidelines:


• Use gloves designed for the task.

• Always wash, dry and sanitize hands before donning gloves.

• Sanitizers can create pinholes. Do not apply sanitizer to the outside of a glove once it’s on your hand, unless the glove is designed to be sanitized.

• Change gloves regularly or at least every break following the procedure outlined above.

• Always wash your hands after removing gloves, as research has shown that bacteria collect in the perspiration under the gloves.

• Audit the effectiveness of your glove program by regularly swabbing food workers' gloved hands.

• Constantly train and reinforce good hand hygiene practices.


Dr. Ron Wasik, PhD, MBA (Dr. Fix It), is president of RJW Consulting

Canada Ltd.

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