If glove use is going to be effective, several factors should be considered when designing a disposable glove program. Size is vitally important to ensure the safety of the employee, as well as the safety of the food. Gloves that are too large can lead to accidents if the employee cannot safely handle a knife. The tips of overly large glove fingers may accidentally be cut off and end up in food. If the glove is too small, employees may opt to not wear gloves rather than be uncomfortable. Also gloves that are too small tend to rip, or poke nails through the tips. Because hands differ in sizes and tasks vary widely, multiple sizes and glove types should be provided.
Another factor to consider is the type of glove best suited for the job at hand. For tasks that do not require high finger sensitivity, such as pre-assembling salads, a poly glove is most appropriate. A poly glove is also recommended when muliti-tasking, when frequent glove changes will occur. For example, poly gloves are ideal to wear when making sandwiches to order, switching to cash register tasks, opening coolers, than back to foodhandling tasks. When a job is highly repetitive for longer periods of time or requires a higher level of control, a tighter-fitting vinyl or latex glove is best suited. Vinyl and latex gloves work well in situations where employees are chopping and slicing, or performing detailed work such as decorating or garnishing. Keep in mind that some employees may have allergies to latex, and many customers may also have a latex allergy which could manifest in allergic symptoms if latex gloves are used for their food preparation. Food establishments should be cautious about using latex gloves for food preparation for these reasons, and vinyl or poly gloves may be a better choice in these situations.
Lastly, employees need proper training and constant reinforcement on proper glove usage. The guidelines for changing gloves mimic those of hand washing. Both should happen each time employees change tasks, when gloves are dirty, every four hours during continuous use, and especially when switching between raw foods and ready-to-eat foods. Hand washing should always occur before donning gloves.
Combining frequent hand washing and barriers such as single-use gloves and utensils is the best strategy available today for combating foodborne illnesses, particularly those caused by poor personal hygiene or fecal pathogens. In a perfect world, hand washing would remove all microorganisms. In a perfect world, disposable gloves would be a foolproof solution- impermeable and immune from contamination.
Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world. Hand washing is not enough. Gloves may rip or leak, and are often used even after they become contaminated during food handling. A significant portion of foodborne illness is due to poor personal hygiene, ill employees, and improper food safety practices. Taking extra precautions to prevent illness makes sense, and each additional barrier that we put in place adds one more layer of protection against foodborne illness outbreaks.
Taking either side in this debate is a compromise in food safety. Why take chances when so much is at stake? A hand sanitation program that unites proper hand washing with disposable gloves and other barriers ends the controversy and makes everyone a winner.
Paul McGinnis is the VP of Marketing for Ecolab's Food Safety Specialties division (formerly Daydots). He is an author and a speaker, and currently serves as editor-in-chief of Food Safety Solutions magazine.