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October 2018

Food safety: Gloves on, or gloves off?

Written by Nathalie Leblond
Cleanliness and Hygiene

Last week’s blog post focussed on Global Handwashing Day which is coming up on the 15th October and some of the tips families can employ to instil good hand hygiene practices into their children. The 2018 Global Handwashing Day theme is ‘Clean hands – a recipe for health’ and focuses on the link between handwashing and food, including food hygiene. This got me thinking about hand hygiene outside of the home and office. In food manufacturing and food handling environments especially, a lapse in good hygiene practices could have serious and far-reaching consequences.

The risk that food-borne illnesses pose:

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has described food contamination and food-borne disease as an increasingly global threat to the health and wellbeing of millions of people. They estimate that 600 million people annually are affected by food-borne diseases and that children under 5 years of age carry 40% of the food-borne disease burden, with 125 000 deaths every year. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention around 40% of food-borne illnesses and nearly 80% of infections are spread via germs on our hands.

Hand hygiene in the food industry:

The increasing threat of food contamination, as reported by the WHO, could be due to a number of social and economic reasons, including the growing international trade in food. However, studies of illness outbreaks have found that the common denominators amongst many cases of food-borne illness include cross-contamination, improper cooking temperatures of foods and poor employee health and hygiene.

Indeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics goes as far as to say that “Food-borne disease outbreaks continue to threaten the U.S. population, despite advances in food safety and regulation ... The high numbers of norovirus outbreaks reinforce the need to strengthen and enforce workplace hygiene, as these outbreaks often are initiated and perpetuated by food handlers who contaminate ready-to-eat foods.”

Because contaminated hands can transfer viruses and bacteria to up to 14 other subjects, the personal hygiene of employees who handle food must be impeccable in order to prevent the spread of germs. It is critical for anyone in a management role within the food industry firstly has a solid understanding of the principles of good hand hygiene, and then to establish and maintain protocols for impeccable hand hygiene.

Gloves on, or gloves off? That is the question ...

One of the more common hand hygiene protocols is - of course - insisting that employees who handle food wear latex gloves.  Gloves can play a huge role in the prevention of cross-contamination in the food industry, and glove compliance is more easily monitored than a hand washing regime. Personally, I would be horrified if anyone behind the deli counter at my local supermarket tried to package food for me with bare hands. However, there is clear evidence to suggest that gloves do not always prevent pathogens from spreading, and this is because gloves themselves can be the source of contamination, just like bare hands.

In fact, an article in the Food Safety News says that “gloves may actually pose a number of unforeseen risks because the confidence they provide may encourage risky behaviour.”  A study in the Journal of Food Protection, conducted in a fast-food restaurant and involving the comparison of gloved and non-gloved employees handling different foods, found the bacterial counts were consistently higher in the foods handled by gloved employees.

But why does this happen? The study noted that “the observed tendency of food workers to wear the same pair of gloves for extended periods and complacency might account for the apparent failure of gloves to reduce or prevent bacterial contamination. The results further suggest that glove use might be counterproductive because workers might wash their hands less frequently when gloved.”

The study goes on to conclude that “ Both food managers and employees prefer glove use because it is easier to check for compliance, although in practice, it has often been found that glove use provides a false sense of security because food handlers misuse gloves or neglect washing their hands when gloves are worn.”

Gloves clearly aren’t the silver bullet to food safety, and managers in food handling premises should seriously consider both the advantages and disadvantages of insisting that employees wear gloves in order to make the best possible decision. There are a number of factors to take into consideration, not least of all being the public’s perception of your establishment should they see employees handling food with bare hands.

Here are some of the advantage and disadvantages of using gloves in a food handling environment.

Advantages of wearing gloves:

  • Customer reassurance, satisfaction and perception
  • Act as an extra layer over hands that may be contaminated with pathogenic organisms
  • Compliance is easily monitored
  • Can be useful if someone returns to work and is recovering from a virus
  • Protect sensitive hands
  • Improves hand grip.

Disadvantages of wearing gloves:

  • The wrong sized glove could tear or puncture leading to food contamination due to exposure to skin
  • Gloves may become contaminated themselves and can cause cross-contamination
  • Can create a sense of false security in the mind of the wearer
  • May not be changed frequently enough
  • Expensive, leading to an increase in business costs.

For managers who do decide to implement a “gloves on” policy, there are some guidelines to try an minimise the issues found in the study mentioned above:  

  • Create a glove policy and train employees on glove standard operating procedures
  • Wash and sanitize hands before putting on gloves
  • Remove contaminated gloves and replace with fresh ones when moving between surfaces or foods
  • Change gloves immediately after the contaminated material is touched
  • Do not reuse disposable gloves
  • Always dispose of gloves before using the toilet/restroom
  • Understand which type of gloves are best suited for the intended purpose
  • Replace gloves every two hours to guard against possible unseen punctures
  • Ensure that the wearing of gloves and regular hand washing are seen as complementary activities, rather than mutually exclusive.

I think it’s safe to say that along with wearing intact gloves, the most important food safety precaution is proper hand washing and drying.  That means washing hands with hot water and soap, followed by drying with a clean towel before putting gloves on and after taking them off. Even the best gloves are no substitute for regular, thorough hand washing,  which is essential to help minimise the spread of food-borne illnesses affecting 600 million people annually.

Visit http://content.initial.co.za/global-handwashing-day for more information about Global handwashing day, plus free handwashing tools and materials for your business. Or subscribe to our blog for regular hygiene updates and insights.

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Nathalie Leblond

Nathalie Leblond

Nathalie is the Category Manager at Rentokil Initial, and has worked in the hygiene and pest control industry for 12 years. Although after 12 years cockroaches still have the power to terrify her, she has learnt countless ways to defeat germs both in the workplace and at home. She is a passionate advocate for Global Handwash Day and the health benefits that can be derived from regular handwashing and hygiene practices. When not contributing to the Initial blog, Nathalie is writing press releases for sister businesses, Rentokil and Ambius. You can find her on LinkedIn.

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