Universal Precautions: Hand-Washing

Updated April 17, 2017

Universal precautions were developed to protect medical workers from bloodborne pathogens and other potential dangers that can lurk in human body fluids. Today these precautions have evolved to include anyone who interacts with others and could respond in an emergency situation. Most universal precautions involve barriers, such as gloves and face masks, but the first line of defence in protecting yourself from contamination is often the simple act of hand-washing. For the purpose of universal precautions, hand-washing includes six specific steps and is done at particular intervals.

When it is Necessary

You have probably seen those signs in public rest rooms proclaiming, "Employees Must Wash Hands!" but did you know that doing so is a universal precaution? To prevent infection, it is suggested that you should wash your hands in the following situations:

After using the rest room.

After helping someone else use the rest room.

After changing a child's diaper.

After blowing your nose.

After helping a child blow his nose.

When preparing to eat.

When preparing to feed a child.

After any accidental contact with blood or blood-tinged fluid.

After touching pets.

After contact with someone who is ill.

After handling garbage or raw meat or fish.

Whenever your hands are visibly soiled.

How to Wash Hands

Washing your hands may seem like a simple enough matter, but in the case of universal precautions there is a specific set of steps to follow to ensure that nothing unpleasant is transmitted.

First, wet your hands with running water, warm if possible.

Next, apply soap to your hands -- it is not necessary that the soap be antibacterial.

Then, vigorously wash your hands, wrists and forearms for at least 20 seconds. Be sure to pay attention to between the fingers.

Continue to lather your hands and clean your fingernails, as well. If you have a nail brush, use it to clean under your nails.

Rinse thoroughly until all the soap is off your hands.

Finally, dry your hands.

A Few Tips

If you have any cuts or sores on your hands, be sure to keep the wound covered with a bandage. In this case, you may want to wear gloves as cuts are especially susceptible to infection.

They may look nifty, but artificial nails and chipped nail polish are associated with an increase in the amount of bacteria on the fingernails. If you have a manicure, take extra care to clean your nails.

Try to avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose or mouth.

What About Hand Sanitizer?

If you find yourself in a situation where you are unable to wash your hands the old-fashioned way, alcohol-based hand sanitiser can step in temporarily. Try to remove any extra soil from your hands first, then vigorously rub a dime-sized dollop of hand sanitiser that is at least 70 per cent alcohol onto your hands, between your fingers and under your nails if possible.

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About the Author

Amanda Lynch has been writing professionally for print and online publications since 2000. With a master's degree in health communication, her background includes patient counseling, community health and script development. Lynch specializes in covering topics related to health and wellness, women's issues and parenting.