Gloves on, or gloves off?
The global COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown of many countries in the world, including
South Africa, has really put hand hygiene in the spotlight. Which, as a hygiene services provider, is where Initial has always maintained it should be.
The WHO’s messaging has also been very clear on the subject: rigorous hand hygiene practices (proper washing, drying and sanitising) are still the best way to avoid catching COVID-19 and many other infectious diseases.
Of course, many food manufacturing and food handling environments already have excellent hand hygiene practices in place, because over and above COVID-19 a lapse in hygiene standards can cause other disastrous food-borne illnesses – such as the Listeria outbreak in 2018. One of the elements of their hand hygiene routine is to have employees wear gloves.
According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) around 40% of food-borne illnesses and nearly 80% of infections are spread via germs on our hands. Because contaminated hands can transfer viruses and bacteria to up to 14 other surfaces, the personal hygiene of employees who handle food must be impeccable in order to prevent the spread of food-borne illnesses.
One of the more common hand hygiene protocols is insisting that employees who handle food wear latex gloves. Gloves can play a huge role in the prevention of cross-contamination in the food industry, and glove compliance is more easily monitored than a hand washing regime.
So in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, should all employers be making their employees wear gloves? There is certainly a rise in the number of ordinary people going out in public in gloves, so should we be seeing the same in the workplace?
My answer would be that before deciding whether or not to implement a gloves policy at work, anyone in management should have a solid understanding of both the principles of good hand hygiene, and the pro’s and con’s of enforcing a glove policy.
This is because there is clear evidence to suggest that gloves do not always prevent pathogens from spreading: this is because gloves themselves can be the source of contamination, just like bare hands.
An article in the Food Safety News says that “ gloves may actually pose a number of unforeseen risks because the confidence they provide may encourage risky behaviour. ”
A study in the Journal of Food Protection , conducted in a fast-food restaurant and involving the comparison of gloved and non-gloved employees handling different foods, found the bacterial counts were consistently higher in the foods handled by gloved employees.
But why does that happen? The study noted that “ the observed tendency of food workers to wear the same pair of gloves for extended periods and complacency might account for the apparent failure of gloves to reduce or prevent bacterial contamination. The results further suggest that glove use might be counterproductive because workers might wash their hands less frequently when gloved .”
The study goes on to conclude that “ Both managers and employees prefer glove use because it is easier to check for compliance, although in practice, it has often been found that glove use provides a false sense of security because food handlers misuse gloves or neglect washing their hands when gloves are worn .”
Gloves clearly aren’t the silver bullet to hand hygiene, which is why I suggest any employer seriously consider both the advantages and disadvantages of insisting that employees wear gloves before making a decision. There are a number of factors to take into consideration,
not least the cost of providing numerous pairs of gloves per employee per day.
Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of implementing a gloves policy in your workplace:
Advantages of wearing gloves:
● Customer reassurance, satisfaction and perception (especially if you are a food manufacturer or handler)
● Act as an extra layer over hands that may be contaminated with pathogenic organisms
● Compliance is easily monitored
● Can be useful if someone returns to work and is recovering from a virus
● Protect sensitive hands
● Improves hand grip.
Disadvantages of wearing gloves:
● The wrong sized glove could tear or puncture leading to contamination due to exposure to skin
● Gloves may become contaminated themselves and can cause cross-contamination
● Can create a sense of false security in the mind of the wearer
● May not be changed frequently enough
● Expensive, leading to an increase in business costs
For managers who do decide to implement a “gloves on” policy, there are some guidelines to try and minimise the issues found in the study mentioned above:
● Create a glove policy and train employees on glove standard operating procedures
● Wash and sanitize hands before putting on gloves
● Remove contaminated gloves and replace with fresh ones when moving between surfaces or foods
● Change gloves immediately after the contaminated material is touched
● Do not reuse disposable gloves
● Always dispose of gloves before using the toilet/restroom
● Understand which type of gloves are best suited for the intended purpose
● Replace gloves every two hours to guard against possible unseen punctures
● Ensure that the wearing of gloves and regular hand washing and sanitising are seen as complementary activities, rather than mutually exclusive.
I think it’s safe to say that the most important precaution against illness remains proper hand hygiene. That means washing hands with hot water and soap, followed by drying with a clean towel before putting gloves on and after taking them off.
Even the best gloves are no substitute for regular, thorough hand washing, which is essential to help minimise the spread of viruses like COVID-19.
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Source – Nathalie Leblond – Rentokil – Initial