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Hand Washing and Food Safety

Why is hand washing important?

Hand washing is vital in preventing contamination of food by food handlers. Harmful bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus and viruses (e.g. norovirus) present on the hands of food workers are removed by proper hand washing techniques.

How often should food workers wash their hands?

Hands should be washed as often as necessary and always:

  • before starting work
  • before handling cooked or ready-to-eat food
  • after handling or preparing raw food
  • after handling waste
  • after cleaning duties
  • after using the toilet
  • after blowing the nose, sneezing or coughing
  • after eating, drinking or smoking
  • after handling money 

Is hand washing necessary if gloves are used when handling food?

Proper hand washing is extremely important, whether using gloves or not. If using gloves, hands should be washed before putting gloves on, between glove changes and after gloves are removed.

The problem with the use of gloves is that in situations where staff are not given proper training in food safety, workers may imagine that constant wearing of the same pair of gloves will prevent food contamination. Staff may then carry out many non-food related tasks (e.g., handling money, emptying bins, wiping counters) while wearing the same pair of gloves that they then use to prepare food.

When wearing gloves for a prolonged period of time, without frequent changing and hand washing, bacteria on the skin rapidly multiply due to the warm, moist environment created by the gloves. If the gloves tear, or are removed and food is handled without hand washing, a high number of bacteria can be transferred to the food.

What is the proper hand washing technique?

Hands should be washed for at least 20 seconds as follows:

  • wet hands under warm running water
  • use enough soap to form a good lather
  • rub all parts of hands with soap and water
  • lather for at least 20 seconds, vigorously and thoroughly rubbing all hand surfaces, including the fingertips and thumbs
  • rinse hands thoroughly with running water
  • dry hands thoroughly

How hot should the water be for hand washing?

The temperature of the water is not as important as the technique that is used. However, it is important that the water is not so hot that hands cannot be held under the water for a sufficient length of time to ensure they are properly clean.

Should separate sinks be provided for hand washing?

Yes. A designated sink for hand washing must be provided in food preparation areas.

It must be easily accessible, not likely to be obstructed and located close to the working area.

In large kitchens that are sub-divided into different work areas, more than one sink must be provided. Hand wash facilities must also be provided for food service and bar staff, where applicable

What should be provided for washing and drying hands at the hand washing sinks?

There should be an adequate supply of hot and cold running water, non-perfumed soap in appropriate dispensers and a suitable method of hand drying (e.g. paper towels from a dispenser, cabinet roller towels). Hand driers are not suitable for use in food preparation areas.

Is it a legal requirement to use antibacterial soap, antiseptic wipes or disinfectants?

No. Washing hands using regular soap and warm water and proper hand washing technique will be enough to ensure hands are clean.

Antiseptic wipes and alcohol hand disinfectants are only effective when used on physically clean hands and are completely inactivated by any organic matter (e.g. pieces of food).

Are gloves a legal requirement for workers handling food?

No. A common misunderstanding among both food business operators and customers is that it is a legal requirement that food handlers must wear gloves when handling and preparing food.

It is perfectly acceptable to prepare and handle food with bare hands provided proper hand washing procedures are in place.

Gloves may be used by food workers, but they must be properly trained to ensure that the gloves are changed frequently and that hands are washed between glove changes and when gloves are removed.

Gloves must be changed when carrying out non-food related activities such as emptying bins, handling money, etc.

Workers should be aware that wearing gloves can allow bacteria to build up on the surface of the hands, so hand washing is extremely important when gloves are removed to avoid subsequent contamination of food.

Is it a legal requirement to wear gloves when handling raw food?

No. As stated above it is enough to ensure that hands are washed properly before and after handling raw food. There is no requirement to wear gloves when handling raw food.

Further Information

The Health Protection Surveillance Centre publication ‘Preventing Foodborne Disease: A Focus on the Infected Food Handler’ provides detailed information on risks posed by food handlers. 

The National Standards Authority of Ireland (NSAI) standards ‘I.S. 340:2007 Hygiene in the Catering Sector’ and ‘I.S. 341:2007 Hygiene in Food Retailing and Wholesaling’ provide valuable guidance in this area. These standards are available to purchase from the NSAI by calling 01 8576730.