Towards the end of 2018 I wrote a blog post about the use of nitrile or latex gloves in the food industry as a way of preventing food-borne illnesses. You can read the original post here, but I thought now would be an excellent time to write a follow-up piece on whether the use of gloves by the general public can limit cross-contamination and one’s risk of contracting COVID-19.
With the rapidly changing status of COVID-19 in South Africa and the announcement on Monday night of a 3 week lockdown by President Cyril Ramaphosa, I’m seeing more and more people doing their shopping wearing surgical gloves and/or surgical masks. In my local Dischem today there was a large sign on the shelf saying that boxes of gloves were limited to 6 boxes per customer. Masks were nowhere to be seen, and calls to 3 large pharmacies in my area all resulted in the same response: masks are out of stock -giving you some idea of the current demand for both of these items.
When discussing the use of gloves in the food industry, I wrote that 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. This of course still holds true in our COVID-19 situation. We all need to concentrate on personal hygiene, and hand hygiene in particular, to avoid contracting the virus.
However, I also wrote that it is critical for anyone in a management role within the food industry firstly to have a solid understanding of the principles of good hand hygiene, and then to establish and maintain protocols for impeccable hand hygiene. And this too holds true for the average person in the current COVID-19 environment. Let me explain.
Gloves on, or gloves off? That is the question ...
One of the more common hand hygiene protocols in the food industry is insisting that employees who handle food wear latex gloves. This is because 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.
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. And this is where I draw the parallels with the use of gloves by the general public as a means to prevent cross-contamination.
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.
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.”
And whilst this study was specifically designed for food workers, I’m seeing the same sort of behaviour by members of the general public wearing gloves. Just because you are wearing gloves doesn't mean that you are immune to cross-contamination. If you touch your face with a contaminated glove, it’s exactly the same as touching your face with your bare hands. And any surface you touch with a contaminated glove will itself also become contaminated.
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 preventing cross contamination, and members of the public should seriously consider both the advantages and disadvantages of wearing gloves before panic buying six boxes in Dischem. In fact, on their Corona information page the World Health Organisation specifically caution against gloves:
Consider the shopper who wears gloves to go shopping, confident that she is protected. She drives home wearing her gloves, and passes on anything she may have touched during her shopping trip to her steering wheel. She duly discards of the used gloves when she gets home, but the next time she goes out (in a clean pair of gloves I hope) she touches the steering wheel and then touches her face…
For those of you that would still like to add an additional latex layer to your hand-hygiene regimen, here are some guidelines to try and minimise the issues found in the studies mentioned above:
- Wash and sanitize hands before putting on gloves
- Remove contaminated gloves and replace with fresh ones when moving between locations
- Do not reuse disposable gloves
- Always dispose of gloves before using the toilet/restroom
- Replace gloves every two hours to guard against possible unseen punctures
- Ensure that the wearing of gloves and regular hand washing and sanitising are seen as complementary activities, rather than mutually exclusive.
I think it’s safe to say that the most important precaution we can take against COVID-19 and other viral and bacterial illnesses is still proper hand washing and drying. And that's irrespective of whether or not you are planning to use gloves as part of your hand hygiene routine.
If you still want to use gloves as an additional measure of precaution, remember to wash your hands with hot water and soap, and then dry them properly with a clean towel or paper, 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 illnesses such as COVID-19.
Download your comprehensive hand washing guide for more help inspiring staff to maintain good hand hygiene. You can also visit our dedicated COVID-19 page for additional resources to help you through this period, or contact our team to discuss your needs.