Earlier this year, I started to focus our FoodHandler Food Safety blogs on common food safety issues faced in each foodservice operation across the world.  We’ve covered some of the most common issues, but perhaps none is more common than improper hand hygiene.

Handwashing is vital to protecting your health, even outside of food safety and foodservice environments.  If you look at public health data, research has noted by practicing simple and proper handwashing, you can reduce the risk of respiratory illnesses by 16 to 21%!  Foodborne illness statistics note an extremely large percentage of outbreaks are spread by contaminated hands.

When conducting training with foodservice employees, most employees will say they wash their hands at the proper times and following the proper procedure.  But do employees really wash their hands as much as they claim to do?  We have conducted observational research at K-State and have noted the lack of handwashing among employees, even when they know they are being watched for food safety-related practices.


If you are a manager and are reading this thinking your employee handwashing is far better than average…I would encourage you to take a closer look at actual practices.


The Food and Drug Administration has also conducted research to quantify the frequency of those in foodservice operations who are out of compliance with proper handwashing recommendations and outlined their data in a series of reports, starting in 2000. They explored different areas of foodservice, including hospitals, nursing care, schools, fast-food, and full-service restaurants. Between the reports issues in 2000, 2004, and 2009, the average handwashing out-of-compliance rates across all segments in the industry was 46.8%, meaning that almost half of the employees were not observed washing their hands correctly or when they were required to. Among all segments, full-service and fast-food restaurants had the highest out-of-compliance rates with an average of 62.5%. Overall, out-of-compliance rates did improve between the three years, falling a total of 9.3% over the nine-year period of the studies. In 2013 and 2014, the FDA published more data exploring only full-service and fast-food restaurants and reported out-of-compliance rates of 82.4% and 65.7%, respectively.

If you are a manager and are reading this thinking your employees are far better than average, I’d encourage you to take a close look at their practices and determine if this is really the case. I would venture to argue that they are more than likely closer to averages found in these and other studies.

I don’t want to spend much time talking about the proper handwashing procedure; most of our employees can recite the steps of proper handwashing to us in their sleep. This is the part of food safety training that is extremely important but is also the part where it is common to get eye rolls among the trainees. Make sure your employees know how to wash their hands, but don’t spend too much time on this – focus on making sure they implement the behavior on-the-job.

Outside of how to wash hands, the other most important concept for employees to grasp about a handwashing is when to wash their hands. Again, I don’t want to spend much time talking about when to wash your hands as I am sure we all know these by heart, too.  However, missing in most food safety training is the science behind why these are important. The employee will remember the hundreds of times they didn’t wash their hands after they were supposed to and no one fell ill (that they know of, at least).  So, focus on why the next time is so important and how it only takes one instance to cause an outbreak. Help them to slowly change their behavior and develop the proper habits that will support your food safety plan.

This focus of on-the-job behavior is where the food safety culture comes into play. I am sure I have mentioned this in these blogs before, but I will always recall the first time we committed to hosting an in-house full-fledged food safety class and one of my full-time employees told me he had learned a lot and thanked me for doing the training.  Then, went on to say that he couldn’t practice the steps we talked about, particularly pointing out handwashing, stating that if he washed his hands as much as he was supposed to, he would never get the food out on time.  It was this one instance when I learned that we, as a management team, spent too much time on ticket times and being sure to serve the guest quickly, that we lost focus on food safety.  While ticket times were important, we had to take a step back and refocus the team on the fact that nothing is so important that it couldn’t be done safely. This was sometimes easier to say than it was to put into practice in day-to-day operations.

Handwashing is easy and almost everyone can recite the when and how-to-do of handwashing.  But putting it into practice is where many of us in the foodservice industry fail and it is this reason it is still one of the top causes of foodborne illness in the United States today.  So, take a step back with your employees, refocus the discussion, and help them create a gradual change that improves the handwashing habits in your operation.

Later this month, we will release the second SafeBites Webinar of 2022, Facts and Myths of Food Safety Messaging, so be on the lookout for it.  Our presenter will be Dr. Ellen Shumaker from North Carolina State University. Be sure to reach out if you have any questions about food safety, we are happy to help whenever we can. Risk Nothing.