Simply put, yes. Hand washing is the single most effective way to prevent the spread of infections. You can spread certain "germs" (a general term for microbes like viruses and bacteria) casually by touching another person. You can also catch germs when you touch contaminated objects or surfaces and then you touch your face (mouth, eyes, and nose).
"Good" hand washing techniques include using an adequate amount of soap, rubbing the hands together to create friction, and rinsing under running water. The use of gloves is not a substitute for hand washing.
There is additional information in OSH Answers about how the common cold is transmitted by contaminated hands.
Also see Influenza and Pandemic Influenza. Other steps that can be taken to reduce the spread of infections are discussed in the OSH Answers document Good Hygiene Practices - Reducing the Spread of Infections and Viruses.
Please note: In some workplaces, universal precautions should be followed when workers are exposed to blood and certain other body fluids. Please see the OSH Answers document Routine Practices for more complete information.
Different situations where people can pick up "germs" include:
Ensuring that employees wash their hands properly after using the washroom is very important in reducing disease transmission of stomach "flus" (which really is not a "flu" or influenza) and other gastrointestinal infections. Using soap and lathering up is very important (rinsing hands in water only is not as effective). Use comfortably warm, running water where possible for comfort. Hands should be washed for a minimum of 15 seconds - longer if the hands are visibly soiled. To help people (especially children) wash long enough, one option may be to sing a short song such as "Happy Birthday" or "A, B, C" twice. The idea of surgeons scrubbing for an operation (as on TV) is very similar.
For effective hand washing, follow these steps:
Other tips include:
While it is true that regular soap and water does not actually kill microorganisms (they create a slippery surface that allows the organisms to "slide off"), antibacterial soaps are typically considered to be "overkill" for most purposes. The exception may be in a hospital where special situations are present (e.g., before invasive procedures, when caring for severely immuno-compromised patients, critical care areas, intensive care nurseries, etc.). Antibacterial agents should be chosen carefully based on their active ingredients and characteristics, and when persistent antimicrobial activity on the hands is desired.
When there is no soap or water available, one alternative is to use waterless hand scrubs. Some of these products are made of ethyl alcohol mixed with emollients (skin softeners) and other agents. They are often available as a rinse, or on wipes or towelettes. They can be used by paramedics, home care attendants, or other mobile workers where hand washing facilities are not available. However, these agents are not effective when the hands are heavily contaminated with dirt, blood, or other organic materials. In addition, waterless hand scrubs may have a drying effect on the skin and may have odours which may be irritating to some users. Hand sanitizers may not be effective when your hands are visibly dirty or greasy.
Document last updated on September 25, 2014