Clean hands for a healthy school

You can cut staff and pupils' sick days if everybody learns how to wash properly, says teacher John Dabell

The children file out of assembly and now the whole school is queueing for the toilet. This isn't what normally happens but the end-product of my theme for the day: the importance of handwashing. The idea to highlight hygiene arose because of a militia of tummy bugs terrorising the school population, leaving most classrooms short of children.

I started to think about how many times the door handles around the school were touched and what germs were harboured on them: pathogens - bacteria or viruses such as e-coli, shigella, streptococci, haemophilus, hepatitis A and staphylococcus.

It didn't take much working out. These disease-causing germs were just waiting for the next hand to make contact. It would be easier if you could see or smell them, but they're invisible to the naked eye so they go completely unnoticed. Once you've picked up some germs, you infect yourself when you touch your eyes, nose or mouth. You can also spread germs directly to others or on to surfaces that other people touch.

And before you know it, everybody is getting sick. I wondered how many school days were lost each year because of illness and could this number could be reduced if children were taught how to wash their hands properly and regularly.

One study of 305 pupils found that children who washed their hands four times a day had 24 per cent fewer sick days because of respiratory illness and 51 per cent fewer from upset stomachs.

There's more to washing hands than meets the eye. A quick rinse under the tap isn't good enough. There's a technique that needs to be demonstrated (see box, right). The correct technique removes most micro-organisms.

It was time to tell pupils why and how they need to wash their hands. In assembly I decided to use Glitterbug potion and an ultra-violet light to get my message across. Any potion not washed off by warm-water, soap and rubbing will continue to show up. It simulates the germs, showing how quickly and broadly they can be spread in very quickly. You can borrow this sort of equipment from a hospital or medical centre.

I then showed the proper handwashing technique and got children to do the same as they watched so they learnt the different actions. It's a hands-on activity that the whole school can learn together, but it's important that it involves everyone in the school community if it is to be effective.

If you're thinking about holding an assembly it's worth reminding everyone that they have a continuous responsibility for hand hygiene as something to do habitually and not just for a day. A good measure of this is will be the number of people off sick. It doesn't do any harm to broach the subject with your colleagues either, once you've become more settled in your school. One in three adults fails to wash their hands after going to the toilet, so talking to staff might be the best place to start so they can act as role models and take responsibility too.

We all know when to wash our hands: before, during, and after preparing food, before eating, after using the bathroom, after handling animals or animal waste, when your hands are dirty, and, more frequently, when someone around you is sick.

The problem is, we just don't do it. It's a habit that needs developing as much as cleaning our teeth. For all our expertise and the tremendous advances we've made in technology and new treatments, we constantly need to remind ourselves of basic infection control: washing.

As for the old adage "A bit of muck never hurt anyone", think again, because a bit of muck can cause a lot of sickness when in the wrong hands.

Good health really is in our hands.

resources and informationThe web provides lots of US sites but very few UK ones, perhaps a comment on the status handwashing is given over here. JFor posters, video and booklet, go to www.nfsmi.orgInformationhandsindex.html

Find out about how to use ultra-violet light to expose dirt on hands at For a song for classes to sing, go to www.songsforteaching.comgeofjohnsonwashyourhands.htm


Repetition is the key to effective handwashing. Each step consists of five strokes forward and five strokes backwards.

* Rub your hands palm to palm.

* Right palm over back of the left hand and and left palm over back of the right.

* Palm to palm fingers interlaced.

* Backs of fingers to opposing palms with fingers interlocked.

* Rotational rubbing of right thumb clasped in left palm and vice versa.

* Rotational rubbing back and forwards with clasped fingers of right hand in left palm and vice versa.


Ignaz Semmelweis (above) was the first doctor to confirm more than 100 years ago that routine handwashing can prevent the spread of disease. Dr Semmelweis worked in a hospital in Vienna where maternity patients were dying at such a disturbing rate that they begged to be sent home.

Most of the dying had been treated by student doctors who worked on cadavers during an anatomy class before beginning their rounds in the maternity ward.

Because the students didn't wash their hands between touching the dead and the living, pathogenic bacteria were transmitted to the mothers via their hands.

Unrecognised for the most part by the general public, Dr Semmelweis is firmly entrenched in medical lore as a pioneer who made one of the greatest contributions in the history of public health. In hospitals, homes and schools throughout the world, the simple and inexpensive measure of handwashing continues to serve as a bulwark against the spread of disease.

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