The F&B industry is always under the scanner for food quality and safety. A basic step like washing hands before cooking ensures that the food is safe to consume. As Steve Jobs, the enigmatic Co-Founder of Apple Inc., once said, “Simple can be harder than complex: you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
Thanks to municipal regulations and food safety guidelines, the vast majority of F&B industry leaders have probably taken steps to train and encourage food handling personnel to wash their hands the right way – and at the right times. Signs reminding employees to wash their hands in the restrooms and kitchen are commonplace, as is training on proper handwashing and the installation of one or more additional hand sinks.
But despite these efforts, it is only fair to suspect that food handling staff may not be washing their hands as often as they should. Statistics tell us these suspicions may be correct. It’s estimated that an average food service handler should wash his/her hands as many as eight times an hour to be fully compliant. Studies indicate that compliance with required handwash protocols may occur only about a third of the time. A U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) study published in 2009 found that 72 per cent of full-service restaurants appeared to not comply with requirements for proper, adequate handwashing.
So, why the low rate of compliance? Surveys have found these barriers to handwashing amongst restaurant workers:
- Too busy to take the time
- Hand sinks out of sight – or too few in number
- Soap and paper towels not always available at sinks
- Wearing gloves, which may create a false sense of security and lead to less frequent handwashing
- Hand hygiene not considered a key workplace priority
- Connection between hand hygiene and foodborne illness not clearly understood or appreciated
- Irritated skin due to frequent washing
While it seems most of these obstacles appear relatively, to quote Jobs, ‘simple’ to overcome, what can F&B operators do to overcome these barriers and change employee handwashing behaviour for the better? Public health authorities suggest the following:
- Guard against overly busy staff: Restaurant owners or managers need to ensure adequate staffing levels so the ‘no time’ excuse for not washing hands regularly is absent amongst employees.
- Make handwashing convenient: Install hand sinks within employees’ sight – and keep supplies of soap and paper towels continuously stocked.
- Use soaps that are gentle on hands: Many public health authorities do not recommend the routine substitution of hand sanitisers for soap and water use in food service settings.
- Factor handwashing into food preparation flow: Structure activities to minimise the number of times handwashing is needed.
- Lead by example: Make sure that all restaurant managers make handwashing a visible priority by setting the example for others.
- Keep it top of mind: Use food safety events in the news to reinforce the connection between hand hygiene and foodborne illness – and to further underscore why effective handwashing is everyone’s responsibility.
- Make it personal: When you see good behaviour, reinforce it through personal recognition and appreciation.
- Offer motivation: Monitor hand hygiene compliance – and report the findings. Incentives and friendly competition among teams can inspire improved compliance.
Finally, firm up process. Restaurant owners and operators would never allow insurance policies protecting premises from the risks of fire, flood or personal injury to lapse, so employ the same approach and focus to hand hygiene training – do not let it falter. A well-trained, compliant staff is the best insurance against a foodborne outbreak and the devastation it can wreak on customers’ health, as well as a business’ reputation and bank account.