With the first week of December being “National Handwashing Awareness Week,” you could almost call it “Holiday Health Preparedness Week.”
But even if the holidays is a good time to remind everyone about hand washing, Will County Health Department Environmental Health Director Tom Casey says that 365 days a year, there are two basic facts.
“Washing your hands is one of the easiest things for an individual to do,” Casey pointed out. “But at the same time, it’s one of the hardest things to enforce and make sure others do it right.” Casey says you need to use warm water with soap, scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds (yes, it is true that singing “Happy Birthday” or some other chosen song to yourself can help!), and then rinse with more warm water. But do we often think about how to dry our hands and turn off the faucet?
Casey says the safe, correct way is to dry your hands with a paper towel, and then also to use that paper towel to shut off the faucet. “If you don’t have one of those sensor faucets that starts and stops by itself, you need to remember that the faucet was touched by dirty hands. And you should also use the paper towel to turn the doorknob or push the door when you leave the rest room, as that’s also been touched by dirty hands.”
Holidays are especially a time when hand washing should be done frequently, especially when it comes to big family meals. “You have people coming into the kitchen taste-testing food, kids wanting to help, and all that activity,” Casey explained.
Another important point is to watch for ‘changing tasks.’ “If you are in the kitchen, and what you are doing changes,” said Casey, “then you need to wash your hands again. It could be you were working with raw meat, but now you are working with ready-to-eat salad ingredients. Or if you take out some trash or recycling, or especially if the dog or cat passes through the room and you pet them. All of those are changes in task.”
Casey also says setting the example is of utmost importance. He cited what he and fellow Environmental Health workers do during a food inspection. “We introduce ourselves, tell them what we are doing and why, and then the first thing we do is head for the sink and properly wash our hands. And if during the inspection we do something like touch a greasy handle, or go outside and check something, we immediately wash our hands again.”
Setting the proper example, Casey says, applies in the business as well as in the home. “There’s the managerial aspect. You need to practice what you preach, and set an example for your employees as well as your kids. Let them know what you do and expect them to follow you. Some food establishments have a corporate policy that everyone washes their hands every 15 minutes, just as a precaution.”
As to what other precautions should be taken during holiday get togethers besides being very careful around food; Casey says that more than anything, be aware of what’s going on. “You have closed houses during the cold weather, a lot of people hugging and kissing, food and drinks being passed around; all of that can spread germs. And remember, not everyone will wash their hands as often as they should. So that’s another reason to wash often.”
Finally, Casey says if you are hosting, try to avoid having people use a common towel in both the kitchen and bathroom. In the kitchen, they should use paper towels to dry their hands. In the bathroom, it’s good to have a small stack of individual towels available. And of course, make sure plenty of hand soap is always available.
For more information, go to https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/index.html