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The Semmelweis Technique

By Steve Sayer, President, S&R Industrial Safety & Food Safety Consulting/Auditing, Inc.

We employ our hands to multitudinous tasks that are way too numerable to mention for the sake of this article. Bacteria like our hands are also omnipresent, but even more so, when in conjunction with our hands.

The most critical and yet neglected Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOP) that exists in the general food industry today is the cleansing and sanitizing of workers hands including their cotton/rubber production gloves. This becomes especially significant following visits to lavatories and whenever workers come into contact with unsanitary objects with their hands.  A majority food plants have rigid policies and procedures in place that underscore the importance of proper hand and glove hygiene practices. There still exist however, far too many food handlers who are guilty of poor personal hygiene practices especially with regards to their inherently mobile hands and fingers.

Specialists from the Center for Disease and Control have clearly documented that people are the highest risk vectors when it comes to contamination in the food and beverage industries. Workers can unconsciously, effortlessly and clandestinely scatter harmful bacteria to both critical product contact areas and directly to the products themselves. Potentially high bacteria levels existing under fingernails that can run as high as 2 to 3 million germs per fingernail. Multiple that figure by ten. For this reason alone, companies should require hygienically acceptable production gloves for all product contact and dry good handlers. If cotton gloves are allowed for direst product contact they should be regularly changed out with clean ones following each break or every three (3) hours whichever comes first.

“Bare hand handling” of all raw and ready to eat products, including all direct product contact and dry packaging materials, should be an item of the past. Concurrently companies should prohibit their high-risk workers from wearing nail polishes and bodily jewelry of any variety that could pose as a physical hazard to the products they are consigned to handle.

Our hands are ubiquitous. They’re wonderfully dexterous appendages that procure astonishing innate abilities to assist us during both our work and leisure pastimes. We employ our hands to perform multitudinous tasks that are too numerable to mention. More man made objects such as spoons, forks, work-tools, doorknobs, books, pens, computer keyboards, telephones, buttons, steering wheels, etc. have been configured and engineered to meet their unique needs than any other part of our anatomy. Bacteria like our hands are also omnipresent, but even more so, especially when in conjunction with our hands.

Any worker observed coming into contact with an item that is deemed unsanitary (wooden pallets, hand-jacks, inedible barrels, rubbing one’s runny nose, et cetera.) and fails to clean their hands/gloves before rejoining a critical product area will surely have their operative SSOP system challenged. Washing ones hands and rubber production gloves with an anti-bacterial rated soaps with a warm potable water rinse, followed by a hand dip or an automated hand sanitizing machine wash with an iodine or an ammonia quat solution, aids tremendouslyto curtailing the augmentation of harmful pathogens and/or spoilage microorganisms. A good rule of thumb when training food handling employees regarding the necessary time duration of hand/glove cleaning is to encourage workers to sing one complete verse, (about ten seconds worth) of happy birthday to themselves while scrubbing and rubbing their hands generously.

There was at one time a universal scientific opinion that germs were fortuitously born. That the washing of ones hands was not deemed important…nor for that matter was body bathing. A Spontaneous Generation Theory or Abiogenesis if you prefer, was an antediluvian theory that held that certain lower forms of life, like insects and germs, were reproduced by physicochemical agencies, derived from inorganic matter. This scientific premise went unchallenged up until the middle of the 17th Century. Finally an Italian physician named Francesco Redi started to chip away at the fatuous notion of Spontaneous Generation. He keenly observed how maggots of flies were generated on putrefying meat that was exposed to air. Most other scientist of that era though remained skeptical of Redi’s ideology and continued to cling to the comfortable and fuzzy theory of Spontaneous Generation.

Next a Hungarian born doctor named Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, (1818-1865), whose vocation was an Obstetrician, helped to empower Dr. Redi’s earlier premise that Spontaneous Generation was but only a convenient and non-scientific mirage.  In Vienna during the 1840’s where Semmelweis was head obstetrician, 30% of women who were waiting to give birth at lying-in-wards, were contracting a virulent illness known as Puerperal Fever and dying shortly after giving birth. Semmelweis became curious to the fact that women who were giving birth at their homes were not generally affected with the lethal pyrexia.

Semmelweis finally disentombed the culprit. Doctors, midwives and other caregivers were not washing their hands or their medical instruments before or after their physical examinations of patients. Disturbed at what he was seeing and the connections he inevitably had drawn, Semmelweis ordered all of the care workers to wash their hands and medical apparatuses before and after each examination with a simple and yet effective chlorinated lime mixture.

By devising better personal hygienic practices, Semmelweis inadvertently instituted the world’s first recorded hand and instrument “disinfected dip” based on an antiseptic prophylaxis. In less than two years this new personal hygiene medical procedure lowered the maternal mortality rate from 12.00% to 1.25%. Despite lingering and persistent critics of Dr. Semmelweis “hypothesis,” it languidly became evident that the Puerperal Fever was indeed both septic and contagious in nature. This new and vital procedure of proper hand and instrument depuration was an early and important harbinger of myriad other good personal hygiene practices that would eventually aggrandize sanitary practices in both the medical, dental and food handling sectors of today.

Dr. Semmelweis was posthumously awarded with “The Semmelweis Technique” which is simply known today as … hand washing. This medical epiphany of cleaning ones hands and instruments before and after examining patients would not be practiced in the United States of America until the mid 1890’s --- some 50 years later!

In 1862, the brilliant French chemist and pioneering microbiologist, Louis Pasteur, (1822–1895), who had adroitly invented the process of pasteurization, synopsized after many experiments that germs were indeed introduced into substances from the environment and not from the substances in of themselves. In 1880 Pasteur published his milestone book, Germ Theory of Disease, in which he argued that all contagious diseases were caused by microscopic organisms that could augment at the cellular level from one person to another. Pasteur’s work was instrumental with eventually bringing the bogus Spontaneous Combustion Theory to its final resting home…with the many other nostrums of long ago.

Today it’s superfluous to even mention that good personal hygiene practices are critical for medical practitioners and food handlers alike. There remains nevertheless the important and inherent responsibility of plant management to incessantly train and educate both new and existing employees on the importance of following good personal hygiene practices.

Clear and enlightening food safety training concerning spoilage bacteria and potentially deadly pathogens for all amateur food handlers should be firmly established on the inaugural day of employment and devoutly re-emphasized religiously thereafter. Company’s who fail to properly train and educate their work force with regards to good personal hygiene practices are merely creating ripe recipes with strong geometric chances of propagating potential pathogenic contamination to the unassuming consumer’s expense while concurrently abbreviating the expected shelve life of their commodities.

The next time you observe an employee not following company policies and procedures with regards to good personal hygiene practices, enlighten them with a curt history lesson.

Recount to them the veritable and clear-sighted tale of The Semmelweis Technique

Steve Sayer has been involved in the meat and poultry industry for 30 years. He spent his first 20 years at Alpha Meat Packing, located in South Gate California as Vice President of Operations. Alpha Meat Packing, a former purveyor of case-ready lamb, pork and beef products for retail stores was recognized by CAL/OSHA with having an exceptional Industrial Safety and Health Program and for maintaining injuries and illnesses below industry averages. For the last 10 years, Steve has been an independent industrial safety and food safety consultant/auditor for meat, poultry and seafood facilities including restaurants and industrial refrigeration companies. Since 1994, Steve has been published in nationally distributed magazines covering both food safety and OSHA topics. He’s written and implemented HACCP, SSOP, Prerequisite Programs, Food Defense, Humane Handling of Animal Programs, Technical Proposals for the National School Lunch Program, including Injury/Illness Prevention Programs, Hazardous Waste Management Programs, and Human Resource Manuals, When not consulting, Steve likes to go the gym, coach NJB youth basketball and read world history. He enjoys writing a weekly column covering community events for a local newspaper in Orange County California.  For article feedback contact Steve american_beef_packers@yahoo.com



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