Wise washroom decisions could be crucial in minimising the spread of microbes in your catering business

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Hand hygiene is widely acknowledged as the cornerstone of total hygiene. Indeed, experts estimate that up to 80% of infections are spread byour hands. A recent pilot study, peer reviewed in the scientific journal ‘Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology’, has provided new evidence that serves to underline the crucial importance of hand hygiene – and it could have significant implications for the HORECA trade.

The study was carried out at theLeeds General Infirmary in the UK and explored whether the method of hand drying had a significant
impact on the transmission of microbes beyond the washroom environment to communal areas, wards and clinical areas. The scientists found that it is indeed possible for microorganisms from poorly washed hands to be transferred onto surfaces beyond the washroom environment by hands, clothing and skin contact. Furthermore, they found that contamination levels following hand drying with jet air dryers was on average 10 times higher than when drying hands using paper towels.

The higher potential for microbes to spread through the hospital following the use of jet air dryers is likely due to the increased risk of splattering on the user’s body and clothing. The study also foundtransfer of contamination from dried hands to items in close contact with healthcare staff and patients – such as telephones and stethoscopes.Objects and surfaces can serve as reservoirs for microorganisms that can be acquired by hand contact.

While these results are of course alarming in a hospital setting where vulnerable patients with compromised immune systems could potentially be put at risk, they should also ring a warning bell for the catering sector. If clothing and handscan transport microbes out of hospital washrooms and onto surfaces like telephones and instruments like stethoscopes in patient areas, then there is also the potential for viruses to travel from restaurant washrooms into dining and food preparation areas, borne on clothing, handbags and mobile phones.

The scientists took a thorough approach to the study methodology
Thehospital washroom studied was used by staff, visitors and patients. Researchers spaced out their study over a 5-week period and investigated the extent to which contamination could move beyond the washroom environment. They used a specialised virus that is harmless to humans, known as a bacteriophage, to represent the microbe contamination for the two hand drying options: paper towels and jet air dryers.

All the study volunteers tested both methods of hand drying, immersingtheir sanitised hands into the bacteriophage liquid before each trial and shaking them three times to remove excess liquid before drying. They also wore plastic aprons so that contamination on the body and clothing could be measured.

The three researchers – Ines Moura PhD, Duncan Ewin BSc and Mark Wilcox MD – sampled the palm and fingertips immediately after drying to measure baseline hand contamination levels. Volunteers then walked from thewashroom on a pre-set route that included public and clinical areaswhile the researchers collected samples from the surfaces along the way following contact with hands or apron. A stethoscope was placed around the neck with the chest piece and earpiece in contact with the apron for 7 minutes. Volunteers crossed their arms across their chest for 2 minutes and rested then on the arms of a chair for 3 minutes. Each surface was swabbed with a moistened sponge-stick and disinfected with chlorine wipes both before and after sampling.

Caterers should take note of the study findings
Anyone running a restaurant, café or hospitality business and needing to keep their staff and customers safe will want to reflect on the study’s findings and review the hand drying options that they are offering in their washrooms.

Pathogens can persist on hands for several hours and on surfaces for several months and the hand drying process is essential in minimising the risk of their spreading as residual hand moisture is associated with an increased transfer of microorganisms from hands to surfaces.

Previous studies have already established that the risk of bacterial contamination is lower when hands are dried with paper towels, and health authorities advising procedures in hospitals in Belgium, France and Germanyalready recommend the use of paper towels in washing areas.

Catering owners and managers would be well advised to install paper towel dispensers in their washrooms in order to promote hygiene and minimise the spread of infection throughout their establishment.