Importance of Hand Hygiene in the Food Industry

Nowhere is hand hygiene more important than in the food industry. But most food poisoning outbreaks are caused by negligence or ignorance and a failure to implement good practice – Holchem’s Darren Saunders writes for ECJ.

A knowledgeable and motivated workforce that understands its responsibilities is the key to safe food production. The first step in the process is to determine the standards of hand washing required via a risk assessment. This should take into account where hand washing facilities are required, when hands need to be washed, what cross contamination routes there may be, training and monitoring.
When an assessment has been completed, swabbing of hands should take place to validate that the hand wash procedure has been effective. If the microbiological count on the hands after the first validated hand wash procedure is still too high for the type of manufacturing process, then one of the following should be implemented:

  • Facilities need to be improved
  • The hand washing method requires modification
  • A second wash procedure needs to be introduced
  • Or all three options need to be adopted.

A thorough double wash procedure followed by the use of an alcohol sanitiser should nearly always be sufficient in most food manufacturing environments. It should be remembered that the point at which a swab is taken only reflects that point in time. It is important that operatives are aware of the importance of effective and regular hand washing throughout the working shift.
Each food processor should have a hygiene policy in place covering all aspects of their provisions for hygiene management. This should include a section on personal hygiene and hand care. The policy should also make provisions for contractors, visitors and customers.
The quality of the hand care facilities provided by a food processor will determine the effectiveness of a site’s hand care policy. The locations of the hand care facilities must be given careful consideration so not to impede existing operations. Hand care facilities should be provided at entrances and exits to production areas, toilets and any other locations established from the planning phase. The following should then be provided:

  • Sufficient hand wash sinks
  • The hand wash sinks should be fed with a good volume of warm water (approximately 34-38°C)
  • Operation of the water should be a knee operated valve or automatic sensor
  • Hand wash sinks should be equipped with hand soap dispensers and a suitable drying method • Waste bins for used paper towels, preferably foot operated
  • Hand sanitiser dispensers particularly in high care environments
  • Time allowed for all operatives to follow the correct procedure
  • Posters displayed to show correct hand wash procedures
  • Regular refilling of hand soap, disinfectant and towel dispensers.

Training and education

If a hand sanitiser is needed then consideration should be given to where the dispensers are located. To avoid confusion best practice would typically locate the hand sanitiser dispenser after the hand soap dispensers. Hand washing facilities should be included within the premises cleaning schedule system and cleaned on at least a shift basis.
The following procedure is typically employed by the food processing industry, although there will inevitably be variation between sites to accommodate their specific requirements:
Remove outer clothing and place in a locker

  • Remove shoes and place in a locker
  • Put on a clean, disposable hair covering and additional headgear
  • Cross the barrier segregating changing facilities from the production area
  • Put on factory footwear
  • Wash and dry hands
  • Put on a coat
  • Wash and dry hands
  • Apply post-wash sanitiser
  • Enter production area.

The training and education of food handlers is one of the most important factors affecting the success of achieving the standards required. Effective training on hand washing is fundamental to ensure the safe, hygienic and consistent production of food. Operatives should be able to demonstrate knowledge of why, where and when hands should be washed and show correct hand washing procedures. Assessment of hand care training should demonstrate:

  1. The need for hand washing.
  2. When to wash hands.
  3. How to wash and dry hands.

Management key

Management plays a crucial role in implementing any system and it is key that it sets and communicates clearly the policy and sets an example as managers follow correct hand wash procedures at all times. A good food business will have a disciplinary procedure in place for consistent non-compliance by food handlers on all matters relating to hygiene. This deterrent will contribute to the successful implementation of the hand hygiene policy. The constant monitoring of hand care should be carried out through:

  • Observation of washing procedures
  • Closed circuit television.

Hand swabbing of production operatives is a form of verification alongside CCTV and visual checks will identify personnel skipping or incorrectly washing their hands.
Monitoring should also include the quality of hand soap, hand disinfectant, paper towels, cleaning and disinfection of facilities and the quality and temperature of water. Recording the usage of hand soaps, hand sanitisers and paper towels will also indicate if hand washing is taking place as routinely as it should be.
The system should be reviewed on an ongoing basis at least once a year.
Hand washing is such an important part of any food processing plant. For any policy to succeed it needs to be enforced, observed, monitored and reviewed.