Handwashing is effective at fighting disease – so why doesn’t it happen more?

By ThinkReliability Staff

Global Handwashing Day is October 15. It’s very clear that handwashing can prevent disease – one study showed that it resulted in a 30% reduction in episodes of diarrhea; another study showed it could reduce the risk of respiratory infections by 16%. Yet proper handwashing is still not happening in many places. It’s estimated that the rate of handwashing is less than 20% in some developing countries.

There are multiple reasons that effective handwashing may not be occurring. We can look at these issues, as well as some of the solutions that have been suggested or implemented to increase the rates of handwashing, in a Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis. This method, like other problem-solving methods, involves three steps to define the problem(s), analyze the issues that may cause the problems, and brainstorm solutions that will reduce the risk of the problem(s) recurring.

In Cause Mapping, the problem is defined as the impact to an organization’s goals. In this case, the goals are broad and impact the population of most of the world. The risks of increased disease (particularly diarrhea and respiratory infection) impact the public safety goal. Contamination of handwashing water is an impact to the environmental goal.

The cause-and-effect analysis begins with the impacted goals. Asking “why” questions allows us to determine the causes that resulted in the impacted goals (or effects). It has been established (by the previously mentioned studies, as well as others) that the public safety impacts of increased risk of disease result from ineffective handwashing (or no handwashing at all).

Proper handwashing involves 3 things: clean water, soap, and time. Lathering with soap for about twenty seconds detaches oils and microbes from the skin and water washes it away. Removing any one of these things results in an ineffective wash, and there are multiple reasons why this could occur.

If no soap is available, washing won’t be able to remove disease-causing microbes. Obtaining soap may be difficult due to cost or availability. If soap is obtained, it may be eaten by goats (seriously, goats eat everything) or may not be used if it doesn’t smell good. Solutions suggested include making a protective cover to protect the soap from goats, finding less expensive soap supplies, or creating hand soap out of laundry soap and water. Hardening soap in the sun can help it last longer. Some groups have also started developing nicer-smelling, inexpensive soap or allowing donation of leftover pieces of soap from hotel use.

Even with soap, washing for a period of time (about twenty seconds) is required to give it time to fully remove germs and oils. Various versions of handwashing jingles (songs about the importance of handwashing that last at least the required amount of time) have been developed and are being spread across many areas of the world.

Lastly, even if handwashing involves lathering with soap for at least twenty seconds, if the soap is then rinsed off using contaminated water, the contamination will spread to the just-washed hands. In areas where there is no running water, water used for handwashing can be contaminated when dirty hands or ladles are dipped into the water. To reduce the risk of contamination, many areas use plastic containers that contain a tap that drips out water to use for handwashing.

Even with these difficulties, handwashing remains the most effective, inexpensive way to prevent disease across the globe. No matter where you live, it’s important to wash your hands properly and frequently, to fight the spread of disease.

To view the Cause Map and solutions related to this issue, click “Download PDF” above. Or, click here to read more.