Hands-on approach: A little soap and water go a long way to promote health

Rebecca Weitzel
Rebecca Weitzel

In the time it takes to hum the “Happy Birthday” song twice, you and your employees could perform a ritual that’s scientifically proven to reduce the spread of illness, cut down on doctor’s visits, improve absenteeism and decrease lost productivity. It’s inexpensive and everyone can do it. All you need is a little soap and running water.

Yes, this miracle intervention is hand washing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this seemingly mundane act can prevent 30 percent of all diarrhea-related illnesses and 20 percent of all cases of the cold and flu. Why? Because an estimated 80 percent of infectious disease is spread by touching contaminated surfaces — door knobs, handles, keyboards and other people’s hands — and then mindlessly touching our eyes, nose or mouth, which serve as gateways to the rest of our bodies. Depending on the type, germs can survive on surfaces for hours, days and even months. In addition, bacteria introduced into food and drinks by contaminated hands can multiply and make people very sick.

The spread of illness in the workplace is nothing to sneeze at. When an illness keeps people home, productivity suffers. Co-workers must often compensate by taking on additional tasks and responsibilities, which can lead to fatigue and burnout in otherwise healthy people. When people pack their germs to work — as they often do —performance suffers, they’re more likely to make costly mistakes and their germs spread to others.

Employers can play a significant role in addressing these problems with simple interventions. In a 2016 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, researchers found that when employers followed a basic hand hygiene program that included education and disinfectant wipes placed at each desk or workstation,  cases of illness and health care costs went down and employee satisfaction went up significantly compared to a control group.

Consider implementing the following hand hygiene initiatives in your workplace:

Train employees on good hand washing practices. This includes teaching them when and how to wash their hands. Employees should wash their hands every time they use the restroom, before and after staff meetings where food is served, after browsing through communal newspapers or magazines in the break room, before and after lunch, after using someone else’s keyboard or mouse, before and after a networking event and after using such shared office equipment as copiers and telephones. The recommended technique for washing hands is to use soap and warm, running water. Lather and wash wrists, palms, back of hands, fingers and under fingernails for at least 20 seconds. Dry hands with a clean paper towel, fresh cloth or air dryer. If no sink and soap are available, employees should use a hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol.

Develop a reminder campaign to promote good habits. Hand washing might seem like a no-brainer. But according to the American Society for Microbiology, one out of five people doesn’t wash up after using the restroom. To start a campaign, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at www.cdc.gov/handwashing to access free posters, flyers and hand washing how-to videos. Post friendly reminders in restrooms and break rooms. Recruit supervisors to preach the benefits of hand washing. Hold a lunch-and-learn event to view videos in a group. Work as a team to make hand washing the norm in your workplace.

Make sure hand washing is easy and pleasant for employees. Install such tools as hands-free soap dispensers and touch-free paper towel dispensers to encourage more frequent hand washing. Place hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes at each workstation to promote clean hands and surfaces. Keep restrooms clean and inviting. Not only will this encourage better hand washing, it can improve morale. A 2013 Bradley Health survey found 93 percent of Americans believe the condition of a workplace restroom indicates how a company values its workforce.

When it comes to helping workers stay healthy and reducing absences and productivity losses, it’s clear Occam’s razor offers the best wisdom: the simplest answer is usually the right one. And it doesn’t get much easier than washing our hands. May the “Happy Birthday” song echo down the halls of your workplace and soon become the most frequently hummed tune.