Germ Defense in the Workplace

November 6, 2015 Dr. Charles Gerba

Dr. Charles Gerba, professor of microbiology and environmental sciences

Reducing your chances of getting a cold is really in your own hands. The common cold is believed to be most commonly transmitted by touching surfaces (door knobs, table tops, coffee pot handle, etc.) with the cold virus on it, and then transferring the virus to your nose or mouth. Shaking hands with a person also is not a good idea as one-third of people with a cold have the virus on their hands.

During the fall, about one-third of all items people touch in the office will have a cold or flu virus on it. Employees are running the germ gauntlet this time of year in the office. The common cold does not make most employees stay home, so they come to work infected and spread the virus around the office, laying a mine field of germs everywhere they go. Employees are gambling with germs in the office; they touch the wrong item and bring their hands to their face, and their odds of getting the cold are immediately increased.

Good hygiene in the office is about keeping the odds in your favor and not the germs. It is all about exposure – the fewer items with germs you come into contact with, the better chance you won’t catch the cold or flu. Studies have shown that the best way to reduce your expose is by practicing good hand hygiene (hand washing and hand sanitizers) and disinfecting key, high-traffic surfaces.

Through my team’s research, we have found that viruses spread very fast within the typical office building. Just one person with the cold can contaminate half the surfaces within four hours, and the virus can be detected on half of people’s hands in the office. Thus, people can get exposed to the virus from another person they’ve probably never met!

Studies have shown that risk of catching a cold increases six fold by taking public transportation to work. Our studies indicate that public buses become heavily contaminated with germs during the day because of the large numbers of people who use them. The best germ defense is to carry a hand sanitizer or use one upon arriving at the office. Use of a hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes in the office has been shown to reduce risk of getting a cold or flu by 50 to 70 percent, so office workers have the ability to reduce the number of colds and flu by half.

Why are cold and the flu more common in the winter? Good question, but without a perfect answer. The temperature itself or the human body getting chilled has not been shown to increase odds of getting the cold. That said, what may play a role are spending more time indoors, more crowding and the ability of cold and flu viruses to survive longer on surfaces in the dry heat typical of offices in the winter.

So to recap, here are some simple ways you can cut down on your chance of getting sick this winter:

  • Watch your hands. Try to be mindful of touching your face (eyes, nose, mouth) after touching high-traffic surfaces like doorknobs or community appliances.
  • Practice good hand hygiene. Frequent, thorough hand washing supplemented by the use of hand sanitizer can go a long way toward helping reduce your risk.
  • Clean up. Use disinfectant wipes or other disinfectant cleaners to cleanse high-traffic surfaces on a regular basis.

Workplace wellness

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