THE simple act of handwashing can make a huge difference to your health. Washing your hands frequently and thoroughly is one of the best ways of avoiding picking up infections and also from spreading illness.
As we go through the day we can accumulate germs on our hands after we touch surfaces, objects, parts of ourselves and other people, animals . . . the list is endless.
It would never be possible to keep one’s hands entirely germ free but by washing our hands frequently we can at least limit the transfer of bacteria and viruses.
Handwashing with soap and water can be seen as the single best and cheapest way of tackling infections spread by dirty hands. These infections can include food poisoning, norovirus, rotavirus, colds and flu, e.coli and hospital-based conditions such as MRSA.
We all claim to wash our hands thoroughly after using the toilet but a recent study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine showed how far from the truth this may be. Researchers took 390 samples from hands and mobile phones across 12 UK cities and then analysed the samples to find out the number and types of germs present.
They had also asked the people who took part in the study a series of questions about their handwashing habits.
92% of the mobile phones and 82% of hands had bacteria on them even though 95% of the people interviewed claimed to wash their hands with soap whenever possible. What’s more, 16% of the phones and 16% of hands were contaminated with bacteria of a faecal origin.
At this time of year, we should all be aware of norovirus (Winter Vomiting Virus) which can lead to a nasty bout of vomiting and diarrhoea. Washing your hands frequently with soap is one way to help protect yourself from this unpleasant illness. It only takes one infected person in a workplace to infect his/her colleagues by using a toilet, not washing their hands and then touching shared objects and food.
If we are working offshore on a rig or installation, we will be living in close proximity to our colleagues and sharing bathroom and toilet facilities. There will be numerous opportunities for bacteria to be spread by touch, such as on keyboards, pens, telephones, tools, handrails and door handles. It would be almost impossible to count all the surfaces we touch during a working day.
Flu vaccinations can provide a defence against seasonal flu and washing our hands well and often will also help. We shouldn’t forget to wash our hands thoroughly after sneezing or blowing our nose so that we don’t spread colds and flu.
Now that we have established the importance of hand washing – when should we wash our hands?
We need to always wash our hands:
o After using the toilet.
o Before and after you prepare or eat food and remember that if you’ve been handling raw meat it is important to wash your hands afterwards.
o After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing into your hands.
o After changing a nappy.
o After handling household garbage.
o After handling anything you think might be contaminated – this could be anything from dirty shoes to gardening equipment
o After touching an animal
o After caring for or touching someone who is sick
o Before and after visiting someone in hospital
It’s not just about when to wash our hands, but making sure that we wash them properly. You may think that this sounds too simplistic and that everyone knows how to wash their hands but you’d be surprised. Making sure we wash our hands thoroughly will help to prevent germs remaining on them after washing. Here’s some pointers to help make sure we are washing our hands properly:
o Wet your hands with clean, running water and apply soap (liquid or bar).
o Work into a good lather by rubbing your hands together and scrub them well including the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails.
o Continue rubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds (you can time yourself by singing “Happy Birthday To You” twice).
o Rinse your hands well under running water.
o Dry your hands using a clean towel or an air dryer.
A few weeks ago, it was Global Handwashing Day when people all over the world were encouraged to try and wash their hands frequently and thoroughly.
The success of the recently released blockbusting film Contagion, which is about a deadly global virus that is spread by just one touch, has made many of its viewers reconsider their ideas about dirt and the spread of germs. Definitely a case for “Now go wash your hands!”.
Kelly Paterson is an occupational health advisor at Abermed