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As an industry, we’ve known for a long time that when workers contact food with their hands it’s potentially a major mechanism by which pathogens can contaminate food. Indeed, studies have shown that improper food handling practices can contribute to approximately 97% of foodborne illnesses in food-service establishments1.

This is a big danger to public health, in some cases causing fatalities. It can also cause huge damage to both national economies and businesses. Recent studies suggest that the cost of food borne illness in the USA alone could be as much as $152 billion annually2 and this is a picture that’s reflected all around the world.

Clearly, hand hygiene is a massive concern in the field of food safety and can cause big problems to economies, brand reputations and health. What’s also clear is that measures put in place across the industry as a whole have so far been inadequate. In this article, we explore how new remote monitoring technology can help mitigate the risk.

Why hand hygiene is so important

Microorganisms on the human skin can be categorised as two types:

  • Resident microorganisms that permanently inhabit the epidermis and do not usually cause food-borne illness.
  • Transient microorganisms that are picked up from the atmosphere or from contact with a contaminating source and can include pathogenic bacteria, fungus and viruses, which can cause food poisoning.

A professional hand washing and drying procedure should remove the latter transient bacteria effectively. In a food-handling environment, these procedures are absolutely essential.

How businesses and regulators have tried to solve the problem so far

Over the years, authorities around the world have introduced many guidelines and legal requirements to prevent food contamination from food workers’ hands. Naturally, these methods include hand washing alongside the prevention or minimisation of bare hand contact with food.

The reality, however, is that these practices are not followed as often as they should be. In fact, many observational studies around the world have exposed unacceptably low rates of hand hygiene. One such report by the Food and Drugs Administration in 2004, for example, showed that improper hand washing occurred in over 70% of restaurants and other places where food is served or processed3.

The problem, and the reason why this happens, is that up to now there has been no easy method available to change long term behaviour. Those methods that have been used have tended to fail. For example, various strategies have been implemented over the years to change behaviour through educating people on the link between hygiene and health. However, these programmes have often been shown to have limited impact and are difficult to sustain beyond the campaign’s end.

Direct human observation of worker behaviour is another method by which organisations have tried to change staff habits. This approach also has its limitations. In particular, organisations have found that this kind of measure unnaturally (and only temporarily) alters workers’ behaviour. It is also often impractical, raises concern about privacy, and is expensive.

How remote monitoring technology can help solve the problem

In the last few years, many businesses and sectors have started adopting networks of remote monitoring technology to increase the value of the service they offer or improve efficiencies. Such systems are built around devices with sensors that monitor, measure, record and report on a wide range of environmental and behavioural conditions within a variety of scenarios.

At Rentokil Initial, we believe this can have a really beneficial impact upon food safety and hygiene, because it enables organisations to monitor hand washing facilities discreetly and in ways that overcome many of the challenges that have been experienced in the past.

Our HygieneConnect solution, for example, is an ecosystem of connected devices that enables users and management to see the most up-to-date hand washing compliance percentages of a specified area, 24 hours a day. Unlike human observation, the system is able to monitor hand washing behaviours anonymously and privately. The display shows employees their compliance rate in real-time and uses ‘nudge theory’ and peer pressure to encourage each individual to comply with hand hygiene policy. The solution also gives management access to real-time data about footfall and compliance rates in each of their critical hand washing areas. This helps them identify issues and implement additional measures to support behavioural change as required. Furthermore, it also helps demonstrate hygiene standards to external auditors and potential customers.

It’s proving to be highly effective. HygieneConnect is already installed in a number of food processing companies to monitor critical hand washing areas such as washing points at production entrances and in washroom facilities used by production workers. The good news for the industry is that these businesses are now seeing some spectacular improvements. On average, hand washing has improved from 46% compliance to 70% compliance and a number of customers are now showing over 85% compliance. What’s more, we are also seeing comparable results in high street restaurants and hotel kitchens.

For a long time, food businesses have required a much more rigorous approach to hand hygiene management that was often thought to be out of reach. With the use of connected technology and data, it seems likely that the solution to this problem is now becoming achievable.

 

1 Howes et al., Food handler certification by home study (1996)

2 Hoffmann and Anekwe, Making Sense of Recent Cost of-Foodborne-Illness Estimates, (2013)

3 FDA Report on the Occurrence of Foodborne Illness Risk Factors (2004)

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