Revisited: The importance of hand-washing

I’m glad to notice that the fourth week of September has once again been declared National Clean Hands Week. This is not one of those cheesy designations by Congress; instead, the week of Sept. 20-26 was chosen by the Soap and Detergent Association (SDA) to “encourage a healthy home, workplace and office” with the purchase and use of the cleaning products and oleochemicals made by their trade association members.

I discovered the existence of the SDA with the aid of a framed document posted at my workplace, titled “A Checklist for Washing Hands”. As I’ve written before, my company is big into standard processes so it only makes sense that such a list would be posted in a position of prominence, in the men’s room. Because the document is dated February of 2002, I’m guessing this concern for our health and safety was some type of misdirected response to 9/11.

The checklist is prefaced by results from a survey conducted by the association which asserts that some 40% of American workers don’t wash their hands often or long enough (emphasis SDA’s). Consider that the SDA also claims that 58% of employers don’t encourage better cleanliness habits in their workers. “While most people employ good cleaning habits at home, they have less control in the workplace,” notes director of consumer affairs Nancy Bock, who holds a job apparently even worse than mine. I might think some less-than-positive things about my current employer but I sure can’t say they aren’t concerned about my cleanliness – I mean they posted the checklist in frame.

The list itself is in two parts: when to wash your hands and, of course, how. The “when” includes each time you use the restroom, before and after staff meetings if food is served (I assume that would also cover my company meetings, where bring your own pathetic sandwich is more the rule), after scanning newspapers in the breakroom, before and after a meet-and-greet activity (where you might have to touch grubby customers) and after disposing of freshly killed vermin. Actually, I added that last one myself. I guess it should go without saying, but if we’re going to have a checklist it needs to be thorough and allow no room for old-fashioned notions of common sense.

The “how” of hand-washing is stunning in its detail. You should wet hands with warm running water prior to reaching for soap, either in bar or liquid form; rub hands together to make a lather; wash the front and back of hands for 15 seconds or more; and rinse hands well under warm water. As Bock notes, “washing often, about eight times a day or more (emphasis both of ours) is the first step.” This seems to be bordering on the obsessive-compulsive to me, but of course I’m not selling soap.

I suppose I shouldn’t be mocking the sincere efforts of the Soap and Detergent Association. I really don’t want myself or my coworkers to end up like the little clip-art guy in the corner of the frame with a thermometer in his mouth and an ice bag on his head. Since 1926, under the leadership of a 25-member Board of Directors and over 40 committees, subcommittees, task forces and working groups, the SDA has been dedicated to advancing public understanding of the safety and benefits of cleaning products. I know lobbyists are currently under a bit of a cloud in the public eye, but I just can’t imagine these guys leaning on lawmakers for multi-million-dollar cleanser earmarks.

I decided to go to their website to learn more about the unceasing effort to keep the American public from being so disgusting. In addition to consumer education efforts like the one I encountered, the group is involved in research, government affairs and coordinating efforts with international associations. To encourage these missions, they sponsor two awards — the Glycerine Innovation Award, given in collaboration with the American Oil Chemists’ Society, and an award recognizing the best technical paper in the Journal of Surfactants and Detergents. I wonder if I might qualify for next year’s honor with this piece.

As I read on, I’m glad I took advantage of the immediacy of the web rather than relying on six-year-old messages on bathroom walls. Because it seems like things have only gone downhill since the 2002 report. The 2008 study reveals that only 85% of respondents say they always wash their hands after going to the bathroom, down from the previous 92%, and a mere 39% seldom or never wash their hands (emphasis necessary for everyone) after coughing or sneezing. A new feature of the study is an overall grade for the American public, who racks up a not-surprising “C-” for their hand hygiene habits. Once again, we’re excelling at mediocrity.

“Americans should prepare for the onslaught of cold and flu season,” warns Bock ominously. “Cleaning your hands regularly throughout the day can help keep you out of the emergency room.” On the good side, Bock has been promoted to SDA vice president of education since we last heard from her in 2002. I’m just glad to see she still has a job, considering the poor results of the study.

I guess she got credit for some of the additional features now available on the website. New this year are “tips on laundering flood-soiled fabrics,” which I guess is in response to recent natural catastrophes we’ve seen along the Gulf Coast. “As soon as the flood waters have receded, a new priority becomes how to clean up clothes and other fabrics that have been soaked by muddy flood water.” I’m sure that’d be my new priority as I maneuvered around the bloated corpses of cattle as I waded back to the shattered remnants of my life. In case I get some dead cow on my only remaining T-shirt, the SDA has me covered: “to help remove protein stains such as sewage and blood, add an enzyme presoak product to the prewash.” Any chance such a product is sold by your members? I sure hope so.

The SDA has also been busy bringing new demographic groups into the world of the clean and hygienic. They’ve established the “Scrub Club” for kids, which includes the Clean Hands Game and webisodes in which you can meet Gel-Mo, the gelatinous mascot of the S.C. And in an attempt to reach out to teenagers, a rap song was commissioned from the students at Sampson Smith Middle School. I’m sure some of the cred of the song is lost without the accompanying thumping bass-line, but if you can imagine the overwhelming rhythm, I can quote the lyrics:

“Yo stop touching that dirty can

Go to the sink and wash your hands,

If you want to go on a date,

Jump up and wash your hands for goodness sake.

Washing your hands is good for you

But if you don’t you’ll get the flu.”

Thanks to the SDA, sounds like we can look forward to a bright and shiny future.

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3 Responses to “Revisited: The importance of hand-washing”

  1. fakename2 Says:

    You failed to mention the LENGTH of time one needs to wash one’s hands using the techniques you described. According to the helpful PSA’s on my local NPR carrier (WFSU, with which you are no doubt familiar), you must vigorously continue long enough to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. I would die of old age.
    I happen to work in a business where we take in large amounts of cash. Cash being one of the dirtiest items in the world, for many reasons. (Root of all evil, and all that.) Due to insistent demand by my employees, we are about to corner the world market in Purell and Lysol spray. I recommend buying stock in whoever makes them. I respectfully request an investigation into the recent news that a large percentage of American currency, when examined, shows traces of cocaine.

  2. thirdcoast61 Says:

    Davis, yet another informative topic. I’m suprised they didn’t mention the exclusion of “bar soap” as it holds more germs and has been replaced with jell or liquid soap. And as we’re mentioning “common sense”, we should mention that the water that you’d be washing said dead cow protein out with is probably tainted as well. Having lived on the coast most of my life and lived through many storms, washing your last T-shirt in polluted water is on my list of things not to do. Keep up the good work!

  3. Phillip Donnelly Says:

    I am currently playing an important role in my own office’s war on flu, which is to say that I printed government leaflets from the internet and stuck them up in toilets.
    Apart from the importance of adequate hand washing, I am also developing a strategy for keyboard hygiene and trying to convince our thousands of students to sneeze according to the prescribed forula of “Catch it; Kill it; Bin it”.
    As a child, I expected more from life than sticking leaflets on toilets and an unwinnable war on germs, but life itsekf is litttle more than a germ in many ways: it is brutal, ugly and short. Perhaps I should change sides and become a double agent for the germs.

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