Employee hygiene is a critical component of food safety. As Harry Reeder, regional sales manager for Best Sanitizers explained, “One of the greatest challenges in a food processing plant is controlling the ingress and spread of harmful bacteria into the production area.” Thus, proper employee hygiene is a significant critical control point (CCP), which focuses on those areas where cross contamination is most likely to occur. Some of the most critical aspects of employee hygiene are handwashing and footwear.
Handwashing. Handwashing is a critical aspect of food safety. In fact, said Tom Wirostek, vice president of global marketing for Deb Group, “Handwashing is one of the best ways to reduce or prevent cross contamination and foodborne illness.”
“Proper hand hygiene is the food processing plant’s first line of defense against food contamination,” added Jim Grubb, sales director for food processing at GOJO Industries. “Bacteria, viruses, and parasites can be transmitted from person to person and from persons to food, so health and hygiene of the workforce is extremely important.”
However, said Felicia Roy, trade advisor for Cascades Tissue Group, Away-from-Home division, “The average person does not have proper handwashing habits. Even with the research and education done on the topic, most employees do not follow the best prescribed hand washing protocols.” Although proper handwashing takes 20 to 40 seconds of scrubbing, most people wash their hands for only about 10 seconds.
In addition, she said, drying is an essential step in the hand washing routine, but it is often forgotten or done rapidly. “Wet hands pick up and transfer up to 1,000 times the number of bacteria as dry hands and provide the moisture and warmth that bacteria need to grow,” she said. As a result, poor hygiene can lead to food contamination.
Handwashing may sound like a very simple program to implement, Reeder added, but it can be riddled with many challenges, including correct washing to include fingernails, cuticles, and creases in fingers and hands.
To help ensure proper handwashing, “it’s important to provide a product that the staff likes and wants to use,” Wirostek said. For example, he said, “One of the biggest challenges is occupational dermatitis which can be detrimental to hand hygiene and a deterrent to proper compliance.”
Additionally, employees should be trained and bilingual signs posted in all handwashing areas. “Try to keep training straightforward and simple because of multiple languages,” Wirostek said. You don’t need to have frequent training, but you do need to periodically refresh worker knowledge—and refresh the training itself, because it can get stale and fail to keep staff engaged.
Footwear. Providing employees with plant-only footwear and sanitizing the footwear prior to entering the production environment are good CCPs, Reeder said. Common sanitation methods include boot baths, foaming floor sanitizer at entrances, and boot washing stations, which typically use chlorine- or quat-based sanitizers diluted with water. The systems should be constantly monitored to ensure the level of diluted sanitizer or parts per million (PPM) does not fall below certain levels. Additionally, Reeder said, “Flooring and footbaths require frequent cleaning or purging to remove contaminants left as employees walk through them.”
A new generation of boot sanitizing stations utilizes fresh sanitizer with each application to increase log reduction of pathogens on footwear and reduce labor, he said. Additionally, some boot sanitizing systems that utilize solutions that are not diluted with water are ideal for dry processing environments. Reeder cited a recently published, independent study on footwear decontamination (Journal of Food Protection Trends, Volume 33, No. 2, p. 74-81) that compared four sanitizers approved for boot sanitizing and their respective log reduction. The study noted that alcohol/quat-based sanitizers used in conjunction with dry quat powder achieve the highest reduction, log 3.5, against multiple gram negative pathogens.
Preventive Controls. One of the best ways to increase compliance with employee hygiene standards is to remove the obstacles to compliance. “In food processing plants, some obstacles can keep employees from adopting proper handwashing habits,” Roy said. The tools for washing may be unavailable or inconveniently located; no clear signage or reinforcement exist; the schedule includes high turnover rates; or health risks are not understood or recognized by employees due to the lack of education.
Did You Know...
Once a glove is placed on a hand, it is considered a food contact surface by the EPA. The appropriate sanitizer for use on gloves would be an EPA registered D2 surface sanitizer. Alcohol-based surface sanitizers provide a compliant means of sanitizing gloves in a short period of time as the alcohol dries rapidly on the gloves.
Many of these can be addressed easily by employers by offering proper handwashing and drying tools and access to quality information, and by including hygiene routines in the schedule, he said. As examples, employees must always wash their hands after using the bathroom; before and after handling raw foods, fish, poultry, or eggs; after using a public phone; when one is sick; and after sneezing or coughing.
It is also important that the products provided for employee use have appropriate credentials, Wirostek said. For example, if product is supposed to remove or kill E. coli, it should have proper validation that has been tested. Such validation is available through NSF International, which launched its voluntary Nonfood Compounds Registration Program in 1999 to re-introduce the previous authorization program administered by the USDA. The NSF White Book listing is available online (http://www.nsf.org/usda/psnclistings.asp).
It is also important to ensure that the correct product is used in the correct dispenser, Wirostek said, advising that plants conduct a site survey to identify where product should be located and what product should be in the dispenser. One way of ensuring the proper products are used is through the color coding of dispensers, Wirostek said. Some manufacturers provide products that coordinate with the proper dispensers, or color-coded labels or tags could be applied in-house.
“Implementing control processes to prevent the negative impact of cross contamination from hands and footwear begins with establishing performance standards for each respective program,” Reeder said, explaining that programs should be developed to achieve identifiable, measurable and consistent results; processes implemented to verify and validate the ongoing performance against established standards; then a final check made to identify what can cause a program to fail or achieve standards below those established. Reeder noted some key steps in such process controls as being:
- Establish performance standards, e.g., What is the desired CFU count on hands, gloves and footwear after sanitizing? How will these standards be measured?
- Develop “what if” scenarios. “If” CFU counts on random hand swabs are above “x,” “then” modify, implement, and measure.
- Document training programs on proper handwashing and sanitizing techniques.
- Promote a culture of cleanliness by rewarding employees who absorb, practice, and teach others about hand hygiene.
- Monitor hand health of production employees by checking for skin issues, then reviewing existing practices and products for possible modification. Any changes made should be done in a methodical, systematic way to monitor results.
- Periodically swab-test hands and footwear, then document results to verify the effectiveness of current programs.
- Evaluate performance of sanitizing programs for footwear/boots.
Industry Standards. As with many of today’s industry standards, those for employee hygiene are frequently dictated by retailers whose requirements often are more rigid than regulations, Wirostek said.
In addition, Grubb said, the food processing industry has many third-party organizations that set the standards and guidelines for hand hygiene and audit compliance. Along with the USDA, FDA, and NSF, some of these organizations include the SQF 2000 System, British Retail Consortium (BRC), International Food Standard (IFS), and Food Safety Certification (FSSC).
With all this, however, it comes down to the individual compliance of each employee at each step of the chain to ensure food safety through personal hygiene. While a company can develop standards, educate employees, and develop a culture of compliance, “Hand hygiene up and down the entire supply chain is something we are all still working on and trying to find best practices,” Wirostek said.
The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com.