An independent survey amongst office workers has shown that the major cause of absence from work is colds and ‘flu and a major contributor to the spread of the infection at work is poor hand hygiene. But to date, the hand drying element is rarely referred to. Indeed the survey showed that whilst 87% of office employees thought hand washing was effective at controlling the spread of infection, only 13% thought hand drying had any contribution to make.
However, the latest study on effective hand hygiene carried out by Bradford University confirms the truth of the widely accepted view that hand washing is a hugely important infection control measure, a view also held by the Health Protection Agency and the NHS Infection Control Team. This latest survey, commissioned by Connect Hygiene Products, showed that 93% of employees thought that too. However, the Bradford study goes on to state that hand drying is vitally important in preventing post wash translocation of bacteria from the hand’s surface to the next hard surface it touches.
The survey shows that on average, an office worker in the UK takes six days off sick each year. The office managers surveyed underestimated that finding, surmising that each member of staff takes only around three days off per annum through sickness. They further surmised that it costs around £200 to organise replacements for absent staff members by drafting in other staff members or by recruiting temporary agency workers as cover. Office workers total around 10 million of the total UK workforce of some 29 million. If the manager’s figure is correct, then £1.3 billion is spent on covering for members of staff who are ill. That’s money straight off the bottom line. But it’s not correct.
The survey showed that managers were only concerned with their own immediate responsibilities, they did not include other administration costs nor additional management time. In fact the figure is likely to be twice their own estimate. That’s a £2.6billion cost.
There is more bad news. The survey showed that when the workforce was depleted through sickness, many managers amended the service to cope with reduced resource. Options included dealing with inbound calls only, suspending parts of the service or not calling back as agreed. No attempt has been made to put a price on the lost opportunity cost or loss of reputation with angry customers, but it is out there somewhere.
So what can be done to reduce this invisible cost? Good hand hygiene is very simple to achieve. "Cheap, old-fashioned methods can be very effective in cutting your risk of catching flu," said Dr Tom Jefferson of the Cochrane Collaboration, "and that includes thorough hand drying on a disposable paper towel. Perhaps that it is why it is rarely considered at senior management level. But the numbers suggest that it should be."
Connect Hygiene Products believes that hand drying is the Cinderella of the hand hygiene process. Perhaps, it says, we should start to think of the twin critical actions of washing and drying as separate components of a single and very important infection control procedure. So that hand washing and hand drying with paper towels are recognised as being two equally important elements of effective hand hygiene.