Discover the PPE item that is implicated in 16% of foodborne outbreaks, and what to do about it

October 2020

Although gloves are a critical component of food safety in the food processing market, the advent of Covid 19 has brought the use of them into the spotlight, so we want to emphasize an often-overlooked aspect of wearing gloves – cleaning and sanitizing them.

In studies conducted by the CDC Environmental Health Service in the USA for the period 2006 to 2016, data indicates that around 16% of foodborne outbreaks implicated contaminated gloves or glove cross-contamination as a contributory cause.  So although gloves (single-use and reusable) can be an effective tool to prevent cross-contamination of RTE foods from hands, improver glove use can actually increase this risk, and this disturbing trend is increasing. (referenced article)

Glove use varies per sector and per application in the food industry but for those that are not replacing them regularly (more than once every half hour), education is required to highlight the need to clean and sanitise our gloves just as regularly as if it were our hands.  We need to understand they are not there just to protect our hands but the product as well.

It is critical that food handlers are made aware of the implications of having handled raw protein and then touching another surface immediately after, as they can be unwittingly spreading foodborne disease pathogens to these surfaces where they can be ‘picked up’ by the gloved hands of other food handlers.  These other colleagues who haven’t been handling raw protein are consequently not aware of the need to wash and sanitise their gloved hands.

Whilst the above scenario may be somewhat obvious in terms of basic food safety education, the concern is that by wearing gloves we are less self-aware of these consequences.  We want to draw attention to a comment made here by the WHO that “Wearing disposable gloves can give a false sense of security and may result in staff not washing hands as frequently as required”.  Most Factory Managers would probably admit to this being the case and so emphasizes the need for further education on this point.

Education aids
To help with the education of staff, there are various online food safety training platforms that cover correct glove use, however there is nothing quite like having quality visual signage at strategic locations around your site to help reinforce and support this education.  These can easily be custom printed with your logo/branding onto durable and non-porous ACM material, such as used on our Visual Management boards.  Also check out our gallery page for some ideas of what can be done.

Cleaning, sanitising and replacing gloves
As stated by the WHO in their ‘COVID-19 and food safety: guidance for food businesses’ article, “Food workers should be aware that wearing gloves can allow bacteria to build up on the surface of the hands, so handwashing is extremely important when gloves are removed to avoid subsequent contamination of food.”

It is recommended that hand hygiene is carried out before putting gloves on, in-between glove changes, and after gloves have been removed.  Removal of disposable gloves can lead to contamination of hands, especially when a food handler switches tasks between handling raw and RTE foods and changes their gloves without washing their hands and forearms properly.  By doing this, they will contaminate the new pair of gloves because they have to touch the gloves to put them on.  This can be a significant means of cross-contamination of RTE foods, as detailed by various studies done.

See here for guidelines on how best to remove gloves.

Our recommended process for cleaning and sanitising gloved hands is to wash with soap and water and dry (which is a lot quicker than washing your bare hands due to gloves not being porous).  To sanitise, we would recommend avoiding gel-based hand sanitisers as these will tend to build up a residue on the gloves, but rather spray the gloves with an evaporating sanitiser like Ethasan, which provides good broad spectrum kill rate in a very short time and leave no residues on the gloves that can be transferred to food products.

Check first however the chemical compatibility with the gloves you are using to ensure they are compatible for use with Ethanol or Ethyl Alcohol.  Most major brands of gloves will have a chemical compatibility guide for the various styles of gloves they offer and from research conducted, most brands of nitrile gloves are resistant to ethanol.

The double cross contamination risk
With the recent short supply of gloves worldwide and the subsequent rise in price of the same, it may be tempting to opt for a cheaper type of glove to what you have traditionally used, but be aware of the much larger cost that may result from the double cross contamination risk.  This is because undetected glove punctures or microperforations are likely to be much more prevalent that you may have initially thought.

The double risks are the contamination from the hands through the puncture in the glove to the food product and then microorganisms from the likes of raw protein penetrating gloves via these same microperforations under conditions of normal use.  With the interior of gloves presenting a warm, moist environment for microbial growth, it is easy to understand why glove leaks would double cross-contamination risk.

Often these microperforations are not visible to the naked eye so reinforces the need to change the gloves regularly, especially when handling RTE foods.   A glove puncture has been described as a “liquid bridge” of microbial contamination that can flow to contact surfaces (Cole & Bernard 1964; Fox 1971).  There are studies that have shown up to 18,000 Staphylococci can pass through a single glove hole during a 20-minute period, even though the hands had been scrubbed for 10 minutes prior to gloving (Guzewich & Ross 1999).

In summary

  • Whilst the use of gloves is a critical aspect of food safety, make sure all staff handling food are aware of the high risks of food borne illnesses resulting from contamination associated with gloves
  • Education is required to highlight the need to clean and sanitise our gloves just as regularly as if it were our hands. Wearing disposable gloves can give a false sense of security and may result in staff not washing hands as frequently as required.  Various educational aids are available to help reinforce this
  • Ensure gloves are removed, cleaned and sanitised as per best practise described and replaced with adequate frequency
  • Choose carefully the style of food safe disposable gloves that provide adequate protection for both your staff and your customers

If you have any questions on hygiene best practise in your food processing facility, please contact us using the form below.