Handwashing is the single best way to prevent the spread of foodborne pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
Unfortunately, many food handlers don’t wash their hands correctly or when or where they’re they’re supposed to.
This article discusses the importance of handwashing and explains when, how, and where to wash your hands to prevent the spread of foodborne pathogens.
Why handwashing is important
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne illnesses each year in the United States (1).
Foodborne illnesses — or food poisoning — are caused by consuming a food or beverage contaminated with a pathogen, such as a bacteria, virus, or parasite.
These pathogens and other food hazards can spread through a variety of routes, but one of the most common ways is through food handlers due to poor hand hygiene.
You can prevent the spread of these pathogens and prevent people — including yourself — from becoming ill from them by washing your hands regularly and correctly and by following other good personal hygiene habits.
Hand antiseptics or hand sanitizers can be used with proper handwashing but they cannot replace proper handwashing.
Handwashing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of pathogens that can cause foodborne illnesses.
When and where to wash your hands
Handwashing isn’t something you do just once and your hands stay free of bacteria and other contaminants.
But rather it’s something you need to do every time you recontaminate your hands.
Recontamination occurs when you touch something that could be contaminated with a pathogen, whether it’s your skin, soiled utensils, or raw meat.
There are several times when you should wash your hands as a food handler.
- when entering a food preparation area
- before putting on food-safe gloves and between glove changes
- before preparing a special order for someone with a food allergy
- before beginning food preparation
- before handling clean equipment and utensils
- when changing tasks, such as switching from handling raw or TCS foods to working with ready-to-eat foods
- after handling soiled dishes or utensils
- after touching your face or other parts of your body
- after coughing, sneezing, blowing your nose, or eating or drinking
- after handling service animals or aquatic animals such as shellfish in display tanks
- after using the restroom
Don’t wash your hands in sinks that are used to prepare foods, wash dishes, or dispose of mop water and other liquid waste.
The handwashing sink should be equipped with something to dry your hands like a single-use paper towel or an air-drying device and be stocked with soap.
Wash your hands anytime they become contaminated and only wash your hands in a sink that is designated for handwashing.
While it may seem like a simple task, many food handlers wash their hands incorrectly.
Consequently, food pathogens can remain on the hands and contaminate food and items or surfaces that come in contact with food, such as cutting boards, table tops, and utensils.
As such, how you wash your hands is just as important as when you wash your hands.
Here are the proper handwashing steps:
- Wet your hands with clean, running warm water.
- Apply soap and rub all surfaces of your hands and fingers together vigorously for 10-15 seconds.
- Don’t forget to scrub under your fingernails and between your fingers, thumbs, and palms.
- Rinse your hands well.
- Dry your hands with a single-use paper towel.
- Use a single-use paper towel to turn off the faucet.
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From start to finish, the entire handwashing process should take at least 20 seconds.
The last step is particularly important to prevent the recontamination of your hands.
Many handwashing sinks are equipped with pedals instead of faucet handles so you may not have to worry about the last step.
However, if the handwashing sink is behind a door, you must avoid touching the handle or the push plate with your hands so you don’t recontaminate them.
In this case, you can use your elbow to push the door open or a single-use paper towel to pull the door open.
Follow these steps to properly wash your hands. The entire handwashing process should take you at least 20 seconds.
The bottom line
Handwashing is a critical component of food safety.
Unfortunately, many food handlers don’t wash their hands correctly, when they’re supposed to, or both.
Therefore, it’s important to understand the times in which you should wash your hands and how to do it the right way so you can protect the people you serve as well as yourself from foodborne illnesses.
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