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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, February/March 2006

Handwashing and Sanitizers

Preventing the spread of germs that can lead to foodborne illnesses and food poisoning

by Kirk Spiegel

Most people learn early in life from their parents to wash their hands when they are visibly dirty, before eating or after using the restroom. Why? Many parents will tell their children to wash their hands because they are dirty or because they have germs on them. Both are acceptable reasons for washing before eating food or touching food.

For employees in the food-retail, food-service or food-processing industries, suddenly the choices made about handwashing affect not only the employee, but also other people: consumers, restaurant diners and the general public. The importance of handwashing among food workers is to prevent the spread of germs that can lead to foodborne illnesses and food poisoning.

An estimated 76 million cases of foodborne disease occur each year in the United States. Of those, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 25,000 require hospitalization and 5,000 deaths occur each year. Most symptoms of foodborne illness only last a day or two. Many cases go unreported, and that means the numbers from the CDC could actually be even higher.

Every time a food worker washes his or her hands, that worker could be reducing the number of people who get sick every year. Another reason to wash frequently is to prevent cross-contamination (the spread of germs from one place to another), which occurs most often with hand-to-hand or hand-to-surface contact.

Though it may seem daunting, you never can educate workers enough about the importance of proper handwashing.


When it comes to food service or food processing, it is important to know when it is crucial to wash hands. Employees should wash their hands in the following instances:

  • When they first enter the work area, and anytime workers are coming from outside the work area, whether they are first coming in for the day or coming from another part of the building, they need to wash their hands to get rid of any germs they might have picked up in other areas;
  • Immediately before touching or working with food, food-processing equipment that comes in contact with food, or packaging materials that would come in contact with food;
  • Immediately after taking a break or using the restroom. If workers have to open doors or touch surfaces to get to their specific work area, they should wash their hands again once they get to where they are going to be working;
  • Immediately after coughing, sneezing, using a tissue or handkerchief, or smoking or eating;
  • After touching dirty utensils or equipment, or when the potential for cross-contamination between dirty items and clean items or food exists;
  • Whenever they are switching from working with raw, uncooked food to food that is prepared or cooked;
  • After wiping hands on an apron, uniform or body parts other than clean hands or arms;
  • Prior to and after removing gloves; people often treat gloves as if the gloves are preventing the spread of foodborne germs, but the purpose of gloves is more to act like a second layer of skin for protecting employees, not the food or others;
  • After they have handled money or after interacting with people at a counter or drive-thru and before they go back to working with food;
  • Any time they need to remove oil and grease from their hands. Also, workers should wash their hands after taking garbage out or after using a dumpster. Basically, anytime workers touch anything that’s dirty, they need to wash their hands. In addition, workers should wash their hands after cleaning customer restrooms.

Think about it: If you are eating at a restaurant, when do you want to see employees wash their hands? With those instances in mind, you can train employees to think to wash their hands before working with food.


Use the following steps to remind employees how to properly wash their hands:

  1. Wet hands with water. The water helps prepare the hands for soap so the soap can work its way around the hands. The federal food codes recommend employees wash their hands in at least 110° F water after using the restroom.
  2. Lather soap between hands for at least 20 seconds. Concentrate on rubbing around and underneath fingernails and the cuticle area, which is where germs tend to reside.
  3. Rinse hands thoroughly.
  4. Dry hands.
  5. Use a paper towel to turn off the faucet.
  6. If desired or available, apply sanitizer after washing hands or in between washings.

Hand Sanitizers

When it is not convenient to use soap and water or when soap and water are not available, in most cases, it is acceptable to use alcohol-based instant hand sanitizers to clean hands in between regular washing.

Hand sanitizers kill germs but do not require the use of a sink or water. However, if an employee’s hands are visibly soiled, they need to wash their hands with soap and water.

For example, if an employee is working with a cash register and then switches to working with food, he or she can thoroughly rub hand sanitizer on his or her hands to clean them as long as his or her hands are not visibly soiled.

Most sanitizers are alcohol-based, but there are some alcohol-free formulas available. The two active ingredients that replace alcohol are benzalkonium chloride and benzethonium chloride. Like the alcohol-based formulas, these sanitizers do not need to be rinsed off. However, the non-alcohol sanitizers contain more water so it may take longer for your hands to dry after use.

Dispenser Considerations

Often cross-contamination occurs by touching the soap or sanitizer dispensers.

No-touch dispensers are available to dispense soap or alcohol-based sanitizers and are less likely to allow for cross-contamination because the person using the dispenser does not need to touch anything to get soap or sanitizer. Many touch-free dispensers are equipped with an infrared beam that is emitted from the dispenser. When a hand appears, breaking the beam between the dispenser and the countertop, soap or sanitizer comes out of the dispenser into the hand placed underneath. With no-touch dispensers, it is important to make sure batteries are checked and replaced often. It is also important to make sure the dispenser does not run out of soap.

Train and Re-train

When should employees be trained on proper handwashing techniques and frequency?

New employees should learn about handwashing during orientation. Show new workers where the sinks and sanitizing stations are and remind them when to wash their hands. Put up wall charts as reminders in work areas and employee lounges.

It is good idea to conduct a refresher course annually for all employees to correct bad habits and remind workers of when they should be washing their hands. Take this opportunity to share CDC statistics with workers and explain the connection between clean hands and public health.

Kirk Spiegel is product manager, skin care, for JohnsonDiversey Inc.(Sturtevant, Wis.). Reach him at 262-631-2685 or



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