Food Worker Handwashing in Restaurants

Key Takeaways from 4 Food Safety Reports

Photo: Kitchen staff person washing hands at sink.

The spread of germs from the hands of food workers to food is a common cause of foodborne illness outbreaks in restaurants. It accounts for nine of ten outbreaks in which food was contaminated by food workers. Federal guidelines recommend how and when food workers should wash their hands, but not all workers follow them.

We found that workers wash their hands when they should about one in three times. Food safety programs and restaurant managers should work to:

  • Provide training on proper handwashing, particularly to younger workers.
  • Address barriers to worker handwashing, including sink accessibility, time pressure, and lack of training.
  • Revise food preparation steps to lower the number of needed handwashings.
Why This Is Important

Improving food worker handwashing practices is critical to preventing outbreaks of diseases like norovirus, Campylobacter, Salmonella, and E. coli.

What We Did

EHS-Net interviewed and watched food workers to collect data on their food-handling practices, including handwashing. We wrote reports on our findings about

  • When we observed restaurant food workers washing their hands.
  • Links between when we observed workers washing their hands and restaurant traits such as whether the restaurant provided food safety training.
  • Worker beliefs about what makes it easier or harder for them to do seven safe food-handling practices, including handwashing.
  • Links between workers’ self-reported handwashing practices and their traits such as age.
What We Learned

When we observed workers, we found

  • Workers were more likely to wash their hands
    • When they were not busy.
    • In restaurants that provided food-safety training.
    • In restaurants with more than one hand sink and with a hand sink where the worker can see it.
  • Workers did about nine activities an hour where they should have washed their hands. But they only washed their hands about 2-3 times an hour.
  • Only 1 in 4 workers washed their hands after preparing raw animal products or handling dirty equipment, and only 1 in 10 workers washed their hands after touching their face or body.

When we interviewed workers, we found

  • Older workers and managers said they washed their hands more often than younger workers and non-managers.
  • Workers identified several factors that affected their ability to wash hands appropriately, including
    • Time pressure from high volume of business or inadequate staff.
    • Sink accessibility.
    • Management emphasis on handwashing.
    • Consequences for failure to wash hands.
What Is EHS-Net?

This study was conducted by the Environmental Health Specialists Network (EHS-Net). EHS-Net is a federally funded collaboration of federal, state, and local environmental health specialists and epidemiologists working to better understand the environmental causes of foodborne illness.

Page last reviewed: August 26, 2020