Office workers share more than reports and chit-chat when they show up for work each day. They also share germs, according to a new study by University of Arizona microbiologist Dr. Charles Gerba. A recent article in Mother Nature Network describes how Dr. Gerba tracked the spread of a harmless virus across surfaces in offices, hotel rooms and health care facilities.
The harmless virus was a surrogate for the flu and norovirus. Norovirus is a highly contagious virus that annually causes about 20 million cases of illness and up to about 71,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths. The flu can cause between 3,000 and 49,000 deaths in a given year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gerba found from an initial contamination of one or two surfaces (also known as fomites) in these environments, 40 to 60 percent of available surfaces became contaminated with the surrogate virus within two to four hours. This can happen in your office and any indoor work setting as well!
Knowing how quickly germs can spread through an office, here are some tips employees can use to avoid getting sick at work through the upcoming cold and flu season:
Tips to Reduce Your Risk of Getting Sick at the Office
- Wash your hands frequently during the day. Hand washing is one of the most important steps you can take to prevent infectious illness. Wash your hands with soap and warm water after using the bathroom, after sneezing or coughing into your hands (see 3rd bullet below) or a tissue, before preparing or eating food or touching a contaminated object/surface. Wash correctly by rubbing your hands together—back and front—and interlocking and releasing your fingers to cleanse between fingers. Wash for at least 20 seconds. (If you sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice in your head while washing, you’ve met the minimum requirement.)
- Use hand sanitizer when hand washing facilities are inconvenient or unavailable. Small bottles of alcohol hand rub can be kept at your desk or in key locations in the office, such as the “break room”. To be effective, the alcohol-based hand rubs should be used following instructions (e.g., using recommended amounts of hand sanitizer per use) and rubbed until dry.
- Be mindful of the potential to spread germs via handshaking. Refrain from touching your face after shaking hands. Keep hand sanitizer in your desk, purse or brief case for discreet use after handshaking.
- Cough into the crook of your elbow instead of your hands. Your elbow is not the germ transporter that your hands are! Practice good respiratory hygiene.
- Use a clean paper towel to act as a barrier between you and the bathroom door handle as you exit the restroom. Door handles are a common source of infection.
- Prepare your lunch on a disposable plate or paper towel instead of directly on the counter of the employee kitchen. In Dr. Gerba’s study, the coffee break room was the first place to be contaminated. Ask your employer to provide disinfecting wipes for kitchen surfaces such as microwave touch pads, refrigerator and cabinet handles and drawer pulls. Gerba found that the spread of viruses could be reduced by 80 to 99 percent by using a combination of disinfecting wipes and proper hand hygiene. The US Environmental Protection Agency lists all disinfectants that are registered for use against norovirus. These disinfectants are also effective against flu viruses.
- Keep disinfecting wipes near commonly used computers and telephones and use them to wipe down keyboards, computer mice, telephone push keys and receivers.
- Use your knuckle instead of the pad of your finger to depress elevator keys or automatic door openers.
- Keep your hands away from your face to help prevent germs travelling from fingers to your eyes, nose and mouth.
- Cleanup with chlorine bleach. CDC recommends applying a chlorine bleach solution or other EPA-registered disinfectant to surfaces affected by vomiting or diarrhea (see downloadable poster directions in English and Spanish).
- Stay home when you are sick! It may be the perfect time to telecommute, if you feel up to working. Your fellow employees will appreciate your courtesy, and just might follow your good example when they become sick.
- Make sure you are getting adequate sleep, eating a healthy diet, and exercising to shore up your immune system.
- Get a seasonal flu shot. According to the CDC, the single best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated each year. The flu vaccine is recommended for all people over the age of six months, with rare exception. See your doctor if you have questions about getting a flu shot.
Barbara M. Soule, R.N. MPA, CIC, FSHEA is an Infection Preventionist and a member of the Water Quality & Health Council.