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December 17, 2001
The Dirty Secret About...Hand Washing

Colds and flu are the leading causes of employee absenteeism due to illness, yet the first line of defense against infectious diseases - hand washing - is often overlooked in the workplace, according to a survey commissioned by the soap industry.

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The Soap and Detergent Association's latest survey found that 40 percent of American workers washes their hands neither often enough nor long enough.

In addition, the survey found most employers (58 percent) don't do anything to encourage hand washing in the workplace.

Lost productivity in the workplace from the flu alone costs employers $15 billion, according to the SDA. Hand washing is a simple solution to reducing these costs and is recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as one of the most important means of preventing germs from spreading.

"Hand washing is a professional responsibility that should be done routinely in the workplace and encouraged by employers," said Nancy Bock, SDA's Director of Consumer Affairs.

"Employees should wash often, about five or more times each day, and thoroughly with soap and water for at least 15 seconds," Bock says. "Employers should post simple reminder signs in bathrooms, kitchens and other community areas."

The survey suggests there is a direct correlation between encouragement and compliance. In businesses that post hand-washing reminders, 72 percent of employees wash their hands five or more times a day, and 38 percent wash their hands more than 10 times a day.

Even though 93 percent of employers keep their bathrooms and washrooms stocked with soap and towels, only 41 percent post hand washing reminders.

Where people work appears to play a role in hand washing practices as well. The survey shows that 65 percent of maintenance and construction workers and 47 percent of office and customer service workers wash their hands less than five times a day. Half of these workers also wash their hands only 10 seconds or less.

These same two groups also received the least encouragement from their employers, with 73 percent of offices and customer service facilities and 74 percent of maintenance and construction operations posting no hand washing reminder signs.

In contrast, the survey found that 88 percent of medical facilities and 67 percent of food service facilities encourage hand washing with signs.

The employees in these two groups were also the most diligent about good hand hygiene, with a substantial majority washing their hands seven or more times a day (medical employees: 86 percent, food service employees 68 percent) and for 15 seconds or more (medical employees: 69 percent, food service employees 76 percent).

Following are quick hand washing tips recommended by the SDA:

When to wash your hands:

  • each time you use the restroom.
  • before and after staff meetings if food is served.
  • after scanning newspapers or magazines in your break room.
  • before and after your lunch.
  • after using your friend's keyboard or tools.
  • before and after a meet and greet activity in your office.
  • when using shared office equipment like faxes, phones, etc.

How to wash them:

1. Wet hands with warm running water prior to reaching for soap,
either in bar or liquid form.

2. Rub hands together to make a lather. Do this away from running
water, so the lather isn't washed away.

3. Wash the front and back of hands, between fingers and under
nails. Continue washing for 15 seconds or more.

4. Rinse hands well under warm running water.

5. Dry hands thoroughly with a clean towel or air dryer.

6. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers or gels or antibacterial wipes
are useful alternatives if soap and water are not available
(for example, when traveling in the car or taxi on the way to
a business meeting, before eating an in-flight meal or snack,
outdoor work settings, etc.)

The 2001 SDA National Cleaning Survey was based on telephone interviews conducted using a national sample of 1013 adult Americans, 18 years and older.

The SDA is a nonprofit trade association representing over 100 North American manufacturers of household, industrial and institutional cleaning products; their ingredients; and finished packaging.


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