Hand Sanitizing: An Informal Look

by John Trinkaus, Baruch College, City University of New York

John Trinkaus was awarded the 2003 Ig Nobel Prize in literature, for meticulously collecting data and publishing more than 80 detailed academic reports about things that annoyed him.

This new study is one of a series Professor Trinkaus is publishing in the Annals of Improbable Research.

(Image credit: Flickr user artnoose)

This year, 2009, the public is being advised to frequently wash their hands, or otherwise sanitize their hands, as a precaution against the flu. But to what extent do people actually follow this advice? This study examines one aspect of that question.

The hand Sanitizing Station Study
A number of organizations with high pedestrian traffic volume throughout the day in their buildings have installed hand sanitizing devices in the lobbies.

To glean some information as to the possible usage of such sanitizing stations, a study was conducted at one such facility: an ancillary building (housing faculty practice offices) of a teaching hospital located in the suburbs of a large Northeastern city. This multi-story building was used by approximately 80 physicians and related health care professionals, and their staffs, operating out of about 30 differing private practice offices. Immediately inside the entrance to the building, there was positioned a user-activated hand sanitizing station. Attached to the device was a prominently printed sign, at eye level, which read, in large clear lettering, a message to the effect that everyone entering the facility must disinfect their hands.

Using convenience sampling, 500 observations were made, during the summer of 2009, as to the number of people using the station as they entered the building.

Results and Discussion
Those wearing a hospital identification badge, or dressed in seemingly hospital garb, were judged to be health care practitioners: the others health care clients. Of the 108 practitioners observed, 3 (3%) stopped and used the sanitizing station. As to the clients, 23 (6%) of the 392 noted sanitized their hands.

Recognizing the methodological limitations of the inquiry, such as the use of convenience sampling, possible double counting, and the problem of replication, does not necessarily preclude speculation on the findings of this inquiry. For example, as to the small percentage of practitioners using the sanitizer, a number of reasons suggest themselves. These folks may have simply been in “summer mode,” thoughts of vacations and fun rather than disease and pestilence being utmost in their minds. Too, in their hierarchy of things to be done, flu prevention measures (the disease being in a relative state of remission at the time of the study) might have had a comparatively low place. Also, the practitioners could have just washed their hands prior to leaving their other location — or could be planning on cleaning their hands when arriving at the particular destination to which they were going.

Concerning the low percentage of client use of the sanitizer, they too could have been in “summer mode.” Also, they could have been so preoccupied with the business which brought them to the facility that flu prevention was not even in their thought process. There is a question of whether some of the clients could read English. Of course, for both groups, the results could perhaps be explained as basically an “out of sight, out of mind” happening—or, if in mind, the subject of the flu being dismissed as simply health care industry, media, or government hype.

Hand Sanitizing: Another Look

This new study is the second in a series Professor Trinkaus is publishing in the Annals of Improbable Research.

Background: The First Study
An informal inquiry was conducted in the summer of 2009 as to the number of people who stopped at the entrance of a building to cleanse their hands.

The building, adjoining a teaching hospital in the suburbs of a large northeastern city, housed the private practice offices of about 80 physicians and other healthcare professionals. Immediately inside the door was a prominent hand sanitizing station with a sign directing people to cleanse their hands before proceeding into the building. Using convenience sampling, a total of 500 people were observed for compliance with the instruction. Recognizing the methodological limitations, such as possible double counting, about 3% of the people wearing some kind of medical garb or hospital ID badge (who were judged to be healthcare workers), and approximately 6% of the people not thus identified as healthcare workers (their clients), obeyed the instruction.

This Follow-up Study: Details
To glean some additional information, the study was replicated in the fall of 2009, when people were no longer in a possible tranquil-summer mode, and were perhaps into an H1N1-and-other-variations-of-flu-alarmed state.

The setting was about the same as for the previous inquiry, except that the sign had been changed from a “must” to a “please” request for use of the sanitizer. As the weather was colder than during the first study, a number of people were now wearing coats. Thus, it was not really practical to determine, simply by observation, which people were healthcare workers and which were their clients.

Out of the 500 people observed, 21 (4%) used the sanitizer. As this result was about the same as that noted in the previous inquiry, it may be that a heightened perceived disease threat was insufficient to bring about a behavioral change.

There was, however, one result that changed between the two studies. In this new inquiry, a little more than 1% (specifically: seven) of the people were observed to have used the sanitizer when leaving the building. In the first study, not a single person was observed to do so. Whether these seven people had also sanitized their hand when entering is unknown; the question is an interesting aside.


The first part of this report is reprinted from the November-December 2009 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. This was the issue containing the annual Ig Nobel Awards winners, ceremony, entertainment, and acceptance speeches.


This second part of this article is republished with permission from the May-June 2010 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.

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