Hand Washing And Hygiene In Schools: Why It's So Important

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Keep it clean! The importance of hand hygiene in schools

If you work in a school, you’re no doubt familiar with outbreaks of colds and flu, as well as nastier bugs like norovirus - otherwise known as the ‘winter vomiting bug’. Not pretty. While it’s inevitable that children will pass bugs and germs to one another in a tightly packed school environment, there’s one surefire way to keep cross-contamination to a minimum: proper hand hygiene.

In this article, we’ll look at why hand hygiene is so important and talk about washroom fixtures that can encourage your pupils to keep their mitts spick and span - and finally, we’ll try to figure out which is better, alcohol hand gel, or good, old-fashioned soap and water.

Why it’s important

In Britain, there are over a million cases of food poisoning every year, costing the economy somewhere in the region of £1.5bn annually. In a school setting, food poisoning leads to missed lessons and impaired academic performance - and the cause of this all-too-common illness? Yes, you guessed it: improper hand washing.

From an early age, we’re taught to wash our hands after going to the toilet, before preparing food and so on; but despite this, study after study finds that a majority of people fail to wash their hands properly after using the toilet, if at all.

Not only does proper hand hygiene reduce the risk of infection by commonplace illnesses like influenza and norovirus, but it can also protect from nastier bugs such as campylobacter, salmonella and MRSA. Scientists estimate that if hand washing with soap and water were to become common practice in the developing world, it could save up to 600,000 lives every year.

Encouraging hand washing

As educators, there are a number of things you can do to instill good hygiene habits in your pupils - and, if done correctly, they will carry these habits into adulthood.

One easy step is to make sure that all toilets carry signs instructing children to wash their hands. For younger pupils, you may find that it helps to include drawings of characters - friendly taps and icky germs, and so on.

Hand washing shouldn’t be limited to the bathroom. Encourage your pupils to wash their hands before and after mealtimes and after playtime - especially if they’ve been playing in mud or grass.

Younger children also respond well to incentives such as stickers, awarded every time they wash their hands; consider creating a ‘clean hands club’ to make the activity more fun. You may also wish to build regular lessons or assemblies around the importance of hand washing, with a view to creating a ‘culture of hygiene’ at your school.

Global Hand Washing Day on the 15th of October is an excellent opportunity to raise awareness not only of the importance of hand hygiene in everyday life, but also of the plight of children in developing countries where water is scarce and infectious diseases are rampant.

Hand washing and general hygiene should be a central component of any activity or lesson involving food preparation, rather than an afterthought. Encourage your pupils to treat hand washing as an essential part of the food preparation process.

The right fixtures

Installing the appropriate fixtures in your washroom can go a long way towards demystifying the hand washing process. In infant and junior schools, ensure that sinks and hand wash troughs are installed at the appropriate height, so that children don’t have to stretch themselves to reach the faucet.

Our children’s solid surface trough sink has a shorter projection than most wash troughs, making it perfect for younger children who would otherwise have difficulty in reaching the taps.

The anthropomorphic design and child-friendly colours of our lever-operated nursery school tap can help make hand washing more fun and less intimidating for younger children. The character - who you may wish to call Timmy Tap or similar - can be incorporated into washroom signage and lessons as a sort of mascot for school hygiene.

Alcohol hand gel: better than soap?

In recent years, alcohol-based hand sanitising gels have become increasingly popular, and it’s not difficult to see why: they’re quick, convenient and easy to use.

However, several studies have revealed that when it comes to killing germs, soap and water beats alcohol gel hands down. In fact, some research indicates that while hand gels eliminate 99.9% of bacteria on inanimate surfaces, when used on hands they are far less effective - and can even in some cases increase the amount of bacteria.

While hand sanitising gels are often used in hospitals, they are always used as an adjunct to soap and water - certainly not a replacement. In an educational context, they should only be used on field trips where running water and soap are not available.

Furthermore, alcohol hand gels aren’t just ineffective compared to soap and water - in a school setting, they can be downright dangerous. Hand sanitisers contain around 60% ethyl alcohol - that’s stronger than most vodka! And you certainly wouldn’t leave bottles of vodka lying around your school.

While you might scoff at the idea of children drinking hand sanitiser, it can and does happen; there have already been several cases around the world (thankfully, none of them fatal - yet). After all, inquisitive young children will put anything in their mouths - and child-friendly fragrances such as strawberry certainly don’t help matters. In secondary schools and colleges, there’s also a worrying trend of teenagers intentionally drinking hand sanitiser as a way of getting inebriated.

So, as convenient as hand gels may be, you’re better off sticking to plain old soap and water. In doing so, you’ll be protecting your pupils from harm, and saving your school money to boot.