As much focus as there is on the general issue of hand hygiene, why is it that the discussion around hand drying in particular seemed to have, ironically, dried up?
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Decades of research from hygiene authorities suggest that wet hands transfer bacteria much more readily than dry ones, as the residual moisture left on hands after leaving the wash station allows bacteria and viruses to transfer to food and solid surfaces by touch. Despite this clear research, it seems that a majority of discussion is focused almost exclusively on the importance of soap and water, washing long and vigorously.
Drying, on the other hand, has been given little attention. A recent search through research portal Lexis-Nexis for hand hygiene-related news stories over the past five years suggests that references to “handwashing” practices occurred over 250 times, whereas “hand drying” was only discussed twice.
The risks of touch-contact-associated bacterial transfer can be particularly dangerous and pervasive for food service workers, so it’s essential to place a spotlight on the “total picture” of hand hygiene. In fact, a study that observed restaurant workers showed food service employees wash hands only one-third of the time as required by the Food Code.
Although the Food Code doesn’t specifically prescribe the kind or configuration of hand drying devices (paper towels, heated air dryers, air-knife systems) to be used, it does require that adequate provisions be provided to prevent food workers from drying their hands on their clothing or other unclean materials. It also notes that for environments in which employees are expected to wash and dry their forearms, air-knife systems—automatic hand dryers that provide separate drying areas for each hand—do not accommodate sufficient arm drying, and the establishment is expected to provide an alternate means of drying.
Hand Drying Methods
Not all hand-drying methods are equally effective in reducing chances of cross-contamination.
Multiple studies have looked at the effectiveness of air dryers versus hand towels and results strongly favor paper towels. For example, one study published by the University of Leeds in 2014 found that levels of airborne germs collected and counted near warm air dryers to be 27 times more than those near paper towel dispensers. Another paper, published in 2012 by the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, which observed research from a dozen investigations, stated that “from a hygiene standpoint, paper towels are superior to electric air dryers” and “should be recommended in locations where hygiene is paramount.”
These findings, and others like them, reinforce the World Health Organization’s stance that proper hand hygiene involves drying “preferably with a paper towel.”
Compensating for Bad Habits
People are their own worst enemies when it comes to hygiene. Even with proper training, signage, and hygiene tools, people rarely lather, rub, rinse, and dry long or thorough enough.
Technologies that compensate for people’s hygienic imperfections—killing bacteria and preventing transmission without adding extra steps—can be valuable to the food industry. For example, Cascades Tissue Group developed the Antibacterial Paper Towel, which third-party labs have shown kills over 99.99 percent of bacteria on hands without requiring any change in habit. The dry paper towel is “impregnated” with a safe antimicrobial agent, benzalkonium chloride, commonly used in products ranging from mouthwash to contact lens solution. Benzalkonium chloride is released when the paper towel is in contact with wet hands.
In addition, the use of touch-free paper towel dispensers is increasing, which helps reduce the spread of bacteria. But organizations sometimes have a tough time finding space to install these bulky automatic dispensers, so it may be necessary to “think small.” For instance, Cascades Tissue Group’s no touch hand towel dispenser, Tandem+ Nano, is designed to fit into smaller spaces.
Setting the Trend
While proper handwashing protocols and techniques will always be critical to a healthy restaurant environment, proper hand and forearm drying is equally important and shouldn’t be overlooked. The impact that food service and hospitality can play in creating more awareness and adoption of this practice is enormous. It’s not uncommon for innovations applied in away-from-home spaces to seep into our daily life, so hand drying improvements made at the back of the restaurant can migrate its way to patron restrooms, spurring cleaner hands and more awareness about the value of drying. Similar to how the trend toward sustainable residential homes sprung out of LEED-certification in commercial buildings, healthy practices can eventually travel into consumers’ homes to permeate society on all levels.