When you own a restaurant, the old adage stands true: “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” There’s a reason the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have so many rules for the safe handling of food and kitchen equipment: Failing to maintain a sanitary environment could cause customers to become seriously ill.

Of all of the things you need to do to be clean on the job, such as properly tying back your hair, keeping your clothing clean and avoiding coughing or sneezing onto food, one of the most important ways to prevent illness is to properly wash your hands.

When you need to wash

Most people understand the importance of washing their hands before preparing food, but there are other times you need to do so as well. The CDC recommends washing hands multiple times before, during and after preparing food. For instance, if you are preparing something that is known to carry harmful bacteria – like raw chicken – wash your hands before you start preparing it and after you’ve finished. Wash any surfaces or utensils that come into contact with raw chicken before reusing them.

Should you get cut while handling food or utensils, dress the wound, then wash your hands again. If you use the restroom during your shift, or if you have to blow your nose, cough or sneeze, it’s time to wash again. Finally, if you are touching garbage, including the uneaten food on a customer’s table, you need to wash before touching additional food or utensils.

Also, wash prior to and then after using a pair of single-use gloves. Don’t forget to wash after handling money. Yes, you’ll be washing almost constantly, and while it may seem excessive, it’s far better than accidentally making customers sick.

How to wash

If you’ve been in the food service industry long, you know that washing with a little soap and water isn’t sufficient. Soap and water is the starting point, but you need to wash for at least 20 seconds to kill germs.

To begin, wet your hands with clean running water. The water temperature is less important than the personal care products you have, like antibacterial soap. Apply antibacterial soap and rub your hands together to create a rich lather. Get the back of the hands, the nails and between your fingers. After 20 seconds, rinse, dry (using a hand dryer or sanitary towel), and you’re done.

Hand sanitizers and cleanliness

Some products are designed to clean hands without soap and water. Hand sanitizers work in a pinch when washing isn’t practical, but they aren’t a substitute for washing with water. They will not remove obvious soiling and won’t kill all viruses and bacteria. Choose one that has at least 60 percent alcohol.

Your customers rely on you to serve them food that hasn’t been contaminated. Washing your hands and paying attention to cleanliness is one of the easiest – and most important – ways you can do this. Get in the habit of thorough hand-washing; it benefits customers and helps prevent you from becoming ill, too.

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