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Simple Hand-Washing Routine Can Improve Productivity
07/31/2006

FORT WORTH, Texas – One of the most harmful drains on business productivity is ill health – ordinary sicknesses than can be stopped from spreading, or even prevented outright, with simple hygienic practices.

Businesses are affected by lowered productivity, sick days taken, increased use of insurance and the spread of infection among employees. David Cutler, a health economist from Harvard University, estimated in 2005 that the flu would cost businesses $20 million in lost productivity – twice the amount of a usual year.

The best prevention? An ordinary hand-washing routine.

We live in a busy and interactive society and come into contact with many people and environments. We touch keyboards, pens, telephones and copiers, and we shake many hands and then touch our faces and eyes.

But how many times a day does any of us wash his or her hands? How many times a day do our colleagues wash theirs?

It seems a minor concern, washing hands throughout the day, but studies have proven that washing one's hands is the most effective way to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses, including the flu. A great deal of information has been presented in the press recently on Avian Flu because of its high mortality rate, but it bears remembering that regular bacteria and viruses are transmitted in the same way. Thirty-six thousand people die every year from influenza.

Such considerations are still more meaningful in view of their impact upon the business community.

But how do employees get sick? Think about the shared surfaces we use: doorknobs, sink handles, refrigerator handles, memos transferred from one person to another, money, newspapers, microwaves and so forth.

No wonder it doesn't take long for germs to transfer from one person to another – especially when, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, only two-thirds of adults wash their hands after using the toilet.

Those with children should be especially concerned. Many schools today have eliminated soap dispensers from their bathrooms due to the perceived waste and potential for vandalism. But as any parent knows, our children are walking petri dishes; they pick up every possible virus and bacteria. When they come home, they expose their families. How many sick days could be prevented if kids were encouraged to wash their hands throughout the day?

So what can business owners do to help reduce this problem? A good starting place is to remind employees to wash their hands at every opportunity. Proper hand washing, with warm water and soap, involves scrubbing all surfaces of the hands for at least 15 seconds, rinsing well and using a paper towel to turn off the faucet.

Other things we can do: provide appropriate alcohol hand gel dispensers as a quick alternative when a sink isn't available. Encourage sick employees to stay home so that they don't expose the whole office. Provide employees with sanitizers to clean their desks frequently.

And finally, next time you or your employees visit your children's schools, walk through the bathrooms to see if soap is available. If not, talk to your school administrators about the problem and how it impacts not just the child and the family but also the community as a whole.

Preventing the spread of infection is an important community issue that can be improved simply by proper hand hygiene. I challenge all of you to make this critically important action part of your daily lives.

Texas Health Resources offers a business resource guide on the Web at www.texashealth.org/businessresources. The guide suggests steps to implement hand washing programs in the work environment.

Dr. Jack Keen is Medical Director/Chief Quality Officer at Harris Methodist Southwest Hospital

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