As a food safety and public health professional, I know first-hand that workplace hygiene protocols are often easier to formulate than to follow. Despite clearly posted rules, I’ve seen food workers do a “too-quick” job of handwashing in restrooms – or not wash at all. It’s human and in the real world, it happens just about everywhere.
A 2018 study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed 97% of people don’t wash their hands correctly. Most fail to wash for the required 20 seconds or dry them with a clean towel. Another study, published recently in the Journal of Acute Care and Physical Therapy, found that even at hospitals, visitor hand hygiene leaves a lot to be desired. You’d think that those who visit a building full of sick people would take extra care to keep their hands germ-free, but often the opposite is true. Hand hygiene rates vary widely, from 0.5 to 11% at the main hospital entrance, from 9 to 35% at general and surgical units and 7 to 94% at intensive care units.
This inconsistency in behavior is food for thought given the current outbreak of coronavirus disease, also known as COVID-19. If so many people have a hard time practicing basic hand hygiene in normal times, how can we help them do it in the face of a potential pandemic?
The good news is that there are manageable, practical steps you can take to significantly boost workplace hygiene compliance. If there was ever a time to adopt a new mindset about infectious disease prevention, it’s now. You should implement these steps in your own workplace as soon as possible, not only to protect yourself and help stop the current outbreak, but also to be ready for future ones.
While we don’t know the full impact of the coronavirus yet, we do know that we are facing a serious situation. The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a pandemic. Worldwide, more than 100,000 people have been confirmed infected and more than 4,000 have died. Multiple countries have instituted quarantines, closed schools and canceled events. The economic impacts have the potential to be very significant. We all need to act responsibly and help prevent further spread of the virus.
At Ecolab, we are very familiar with these challenges. In 2019, we helped our customers clean 15 million hospital rooms and more than a billion hotel rooms. Every day, we capture data on 1.3 million hand hygiene interactions in hospitals around the world. A study in five U.S. hospitals showed that after two years, our new hand hygiene program has raised compliance rates to 86-90% and reduced hospital-acquired infection rates by 29%. By comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that hospital hand hygiene compliance hovers around 40% on average. Our approach is to observe closely, find the places where protocols break down, develop solutions, and monitor for continuous improvement.
No matter what line of business you’re in, by following the same principles and taking straightforward, common-sense measures, you can dramatically improve infection prevention protocols at your own offices and facilities and help protect your staff and the general population. Here’s how:
1. Inform your staff
Today, everybody is on social media and bombarded 24/7 with both correct and incorrect information about the coronavirus. Many people are confused or suspicious of what they hear. Make it your job to provide correct information.
Informing your staff starts with getting informed yourself. A good place to start is Ecolab’s coronavirus web page. You also should keep a close eye on communications from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and your local health authorities.
2. Focus on vulnerabilities and make a plan
Form an infection prevention team. Task them to take a close look at the work environment, find potential areas of risk and come up with a plan to address them.
Some solutions are obvious. It’s a no-brainer to disinfect high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs, elevator buttons and light switches, or to provide disinfecting wipes and set up hand-sanitizing stations. But there may be other considerations. If most of your staff uses crowded public transit, for instance, it’s probably a good idea to pay even more attention to keeping exterior doors clean and placing hand-sanitizer dispensers at entrances.
It also makes sense to look into your HR policies and practices. Can people work from home if necessary and do they have the technology to do it?? Does your staff feel comfortable taking sick days?
Issues will vary for every office and facility. You may find that you are doing a pretty good job already. But from our experience in challenging environments, we know that everything starts with a close, methodical look at existing protocols. You can’t find – and fix – breakdowns if you don’t look for them.
3. Train your people:
The basics of keeping viral infections at bay are fairly simple: Wash your hands thoroughly and often. Cover your coughs and sneezes. Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces regularly. Stay home if you are sick. These things are straightforward, but we know that people don’t do them enough. Make sure your employees know how to comply with hygiene guidance in their day-to-day activities by providing training.
Designate members of your infection prevention team to teach their colleagues the proper procedures. Correct handwashing protocol, for instance, is easy to learn. You can find Ecolab’s video on the topic here. Gathering your people for training will also create a shared sense of urgency and commitment.
4. Re-evaluate and improve
Nothing is perfect, and certainly not at first. That’s why you should ask your employees, starting with your infection prevention team, to keep a close eye on compliance. Are there any obvious breakdowns? Did you miss any spots? Is your plan working? This will enable you to address issues as you go along and make steady improvements
5. Plan for contingencies
As has happened in countries like China, South Korea and Italy, you may be forced to close your doors for a period of time and ask your staff to work from home. Do you have a plan to ensure business continuity? Do you know what to do if a staff member or one of their close relatives is found to have COVID-19 symptoms? If this were to happen, do you know how to disinfect affected workspaces? Do you have a protocol in place to reopen your workplace after a potential quarantine? You may not end up needing these protocols, but it’s better to think ahead than to be taken by surprise.
At this point, we know that the coronavirus is a serious global health risk, but nobody knows how far the outbreak will ultimately spread, and how it will affect our own workplaces, families, social spaces and the world as a whole.
But we do know that this won’t be the last time an outbreak causes widespread concern – and that there are things we can do right now to help stop the spread of diseases. The current situation is a powerful impetus to change our mindset. We should all take the lessons from the ongoing outbreak to heart. Let’s do everything we can to stay safe today, knowing that protocols we put in place now will help us well into the future.
Ruth Petran, Ph.D., CFS, is Ecolab’s Senior Corporate Scientist for Food Safety and Public Health