Handwashing signs don’t matter as much as handwashing

A couple of years ago I was invited to the GFSI Consumer Goods Forum as a last minute replacement speaker. The meeting attendees were top level corporate folks with expensive shoes and haircuts. I felt a bit out of place. surprise-01

The organizers asked me to talk about how we developed food safety infosheets and how we evaluated them.  I shared that the literature shows surprise matters when it comes to communicating risks – and a message that is up all the time, like a handwashing sign, probably doesn’t do much after the day it was posted (when it is surprising to the food handler).

The level of surprise in a message determines how successfully the information is received. In 1948, the Bell Telephone Company commissioned a study on communication as a mathematical theory to aid in the design of telephones.  In a study of brain function, Zaghloul and colleagues (2009) also showed the brain’s sensitivity to unexpected or surprising information plays a fundamental role in the learning and adoption of new behaviors.

During the Q&A session at the end of the session someone from a German retail store asked if I was suggesting that that they take down all the handwashing posters they had up, I answered yes, unless they plan on changing them every couple of days. The audience had an audible gasp. At least that’s how I remember it.

WFMY in Greensboro, NC ran a story with the headline: Handwashing signs in restaurant restrooms do matter. The headline is wrong – handwashing signs in restrooms don’t matter; washing hands matters.

When’s the last time you noticed those hand washing signs in the restroom of your favorite restaurant? You might think it’s sad they have to remind workers to wash their hands. Chef Keith Gardiner with G-T-C-C’s Culinary Technology Departments says the health department requires them — as an extra safety precaution.

Keith says, “The rule is any time you do come back into the kitchen from doing anything, you should wash your hands again.  Keith says, “The primary thing you have to be concerned with not washing hands are viruses – things like Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B (uh, Hep B is bloodborne, not foodborne -ben). People who may have it or have come in contact with it. If they don’t have that, you could also have get E. coli.”

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.