Healthy Living: Hand Washing

Let’s talk about hand washing. It’s using soap and water or alcohol based solution to clean and decrease the number of germs on the hands, a fundamental and much overlooked aspect of infection control. While going through the collection of books my mother-in-law left us, I came across a delightful booklet by Grace T. Hallock, written way back in 1928, entitled, “A Tale of Soap and Water.” Hallock tells us that ages ago, wash day happened when rain fell or when someone fell in or went swimming with their clothes on. When bathing for cleanliness became a conscious act, people began to have the idea that washing the body to make it clean might also be taken as a symbol of washing of the soul to make it clean.

Earliest cleansing agents, other than water, used before the invention of soap in the first century after Christ, were crude and harsh. A common purifying agent was an early alkali called nitre, or natron, an impure carbonate of soda. It was commonly used to scrub clothes and to scour utensils and weapons.

There are many stories that depict the Middle Ages when cleanliness of the body fell out of favor and a cult of uncleanliness began. But soon, records in England show that they had gone through the baths ceremony before being knighted, and nobles washed their hands often. Each was accompanied by a ‘body squire’ who presented his lord with a basin of water and a towel when he awoke in the morning. Before and after eating, each person held his hands over a basin while the steward poured scented water over them. In those days, people ate their food with their fingers, out of common dishes, with the fingers of their right hand. For this reason, good breeding required that people should wipe their noses exclusively with their left hand.

Now these days in the healthcare field, we follow rules referred to as ‘Universal Health Precautions,’ guidelines designed to protect workers and patients with occupational exposure to bloodborne pathogens such as HIV or Hepatitis B virus. These precautions were originally recommended by the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), back in 1985 and finally mandated by OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration) in 1991 for all workers. In 2002, the CDC expanded ‘Guidelines for Hand Hygiene in Healthcare Centers’ which we follow. These include: “First wet your hands with warm water (avoid using hot water because repeated exposure to hot water will increase your risk of dermatitis.) Apply a soap product to your hands and rub them together vigorously for no less than 15 seconds (30 seconds is even better). Rinse your hands with warm water and dry them thoroughly, preferably with a disposable towel, then use a towel to turn off the faucet”.

In 2008, while working as an occupational therapist at the beautiful Mountain View Hospital in Las Vegas, I participated in our rehab department’s Quarterly Improvement Program where the physical therapists conducted a study following healthcare staff compliance with the hand washing guidelines. As expected, all of us, staff of the rehab department met with 100 percent compliance. Are you surprised to learn that the least compliant were THE DOCTORS!

Christine Harness has worked in the field of Occupational Therapy throughout her adult life, both in and outside of the Kern River Valley. She has helped countless individuals to maintain or regain their independence. Christine believes that enjoying and taking satisfaction in one’s day-to-day activities is the key to a meaningful life.