This leaflet is for all food businesses, including those involved in catering, food production, food preparation, retail premises, restaurants, pubs, cafes, and fast-food shops.
What is hand hygiene?
Hand hygiene is the term used to describe the standard of care and cleanliness a food handler must give to their hands, which are the most commonly used 'utensils' in a food environment.
Why does it matter?
By law, food handlers must meet strict personal hygiene standards, which includes hand hygiene. Poor personal hygiene standards can lead to food contamination, which causes the food to become unsafe and can lead to food poisoning.
An allegation of food poisoning may be enough to harm your reputation and cause you to lose customers and business.
Even healthy people often carry an organism called Staphylococcus aureus, which, when transferred to food, can cause food poisoning. Staphylococcus aureus is in the nose, mouth, on hair, on skin and especially in the palms of our hands. We can reduce the levels of these bacteria by washing our hands.
Without knowing it, you can collect other organisms just by carrying out everyday actions. Some of these organisms may be pathogens (harmful organisms) which could contaminate food and lead to food poisoning.
One of the most common causes of food poisoning is cross-contamination, which is the term we use to describe the transfer of pathogens from raw food to cooked food and ready-to-eat food. If you do not wash your hands between tasks you may help or cause this transfer.
The main method used to control cross-contamination by food workers is to provide food handlers with the facilities they need to maintain high standards of hand hygiene.
By law, as the 'business operator' you are responsible for providing adequate hand-wash facilities. (The business operator is often the business owner.)
You must provide enough facilities for all your staff to wash their hands regularly and to cover all food areas, such as basement kitchens and food serveries. Any sinks or basins provided for hand washing must only be used for that purpose and must never be used to wash food or clean equipment and utensils. They are a major area for cross-contamination.
Each basin must have hot and cold water, soap (ideally liquid soap or a spray - not a bar of soap), and a way of drying hands, preferably paper towels. You must then provide a bin (ideally foot-operated) for the used paper towels.
You must include cleaning these basins on your cleaning schedule. The basins need to be cleaned and disinfected frequently, especially 'touch' surfaces such as taps and soap dispensers.
Training in hand-washing techniques
You must make sure that food handlers know how to wash their hands properly. Personal hygiene training, including caring for and washing hands, must be given to all staff before they work in food areas.
You need to explain why it is important and then show them the following correct procedure:
- wet hands and use about a teaspoonful (5ml) of liquid soap
- rub hands firmly to lather the soap and to clean all parts of hands
- wash between fingers, front and back
- clean around thumbs and backs of hands
- wash forearms and wrists
- wash fingertips and nail beds
- rinse and dry thoroughly to avoid chapping skin
The lathering and cleaning stage should take at least 30 seconds, or longer where hands are very dirty and may need to be washed twice.
When to wash
The top layer of skin is made up of microscopic skin scales with lots of cracks and crevices where bacteria can collect. We lose a layer of skin around every two days, but constant, thorough washing can speed up this process and leave hands rough and skin chapped, broken and sore. This may not only make getting rid of bacteria more difficult, but may also put people off washing their hands as often as they should.
Food handlers must know when to wash their hands. They must wash their hands:
- after they touch their nose, mouth, hair or ears
- after eating or smoking
- after they go to the toilet (they should do this twice - once in the toilet and once more when they return to the food area)
- after they have dealt with rubbish, particularly food waste
- after they have handled money
- after they have been cleaning with chemicals
- after unpacking deliveries
- before they handle ready-to-eat foods
- especially after they have handled raw foods
Food handlers must also wash their hands frequently throughout the day to avoid collecting dirt, bacteria and contamination.
Protecting food from the food handler
For food handlers (anyone handling food), hand hygiene is not just about washing:
- fingernails must be kept short and clean, as long nails collect dirt, food and bacteria
- food handlers must not wear nail varnish
- false nails of any sort are not allowed
- bitten nails are a worry as fingers are frequently in or around the mouth
- badly bitten nails may bleed
- any cuts, scratches or grazes must be covered with a clean, brightly coloured (blue) waterproof dressing
- if a cut is too big to cover with a waterproof dressing, or is infected, you must stop the food handler from handling food and keep them away from food areas
You may want to use food-handling gloves. Always wash your hands before you put gloves on and after you take them off. Gloves are not a substitute for hand washing and you must use them with care to avoid cross-contamination. You should change gloves as often as you would wash your hands.
Some businesses use antibacterial hand gels. These are not a substitute for hand washing either, but may be used as a further precaution.
You will find further guidance in our other leaflets on this website. Information can also be found on the Food Standards Agency website.
Alternatively, contact your local environmental health service for advice.
This leaflet is not an authoritative interpretation of the law and is intended only for guidance.
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