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Dirty Little Workplace Secrets

Since its flu and cold season, this is a good time to talk about workplace germs, housekeeping and hygiene practices that can help prevent the spread of illness. We spend 8 to 12 hours a day in workplaces with germs that could be making you and your employees sick.

Researcher Dr. John Anderson says that germs travel through the workplace in several ways:

  • Air-conditioning systems, coughs, and sneezes that release droplets.
  • Surfaces like door handles, hand rails, or elevator buttons.
  • Skin-to-skin contact by touching or sharing personal items, or even shaking hands.
  • Objects like pens, tools, cups, etc. are covered with germs by hands that have touched the mouth, nose, or eyes.
  • Utensils and food become contaminated when touched by dirty hands, which have come in contact with saliva, body fluids, or feces.
  • Direct contact with body fluids, which can be transferred to another person by cuts, abrasions or the membranes of the eyes and mouth.

Dr. Anderson recommends a proactive approach to germ control at work. This means assuming that everyone is potentially infectious, the environment is dirty, workers aren't using personal hygiene practices, and the maintenance crew isn't doing a thorough job.

Effective Germ Control

“Hand washing is the key to effective germ control”, says Anderson. Hands should be washed thoroughly with water and soap for at least 15 seconds (most people don't wash long enough) after using the bathroom, before and after preparing food, or after touching people and using equipment.

Other essential germ control steps include:

  • Cover broken skin as intact skin is an important barrier against germs.
  • Keep your stuff to yourself. Don't share clothing, towels, cups, or other personal items.
  • Wash it first. Before using any items in the break room, such as utensils or plates, wash them first.
  • Regularly wipe down surfaces at your workstation, including your phone, your computer, or your tools with disinfecting wipes.
  • Keep a safe distance (at least 6 feet) and wash frequently if a co-worker is sneezing a lot or seems sick with a cough or sore throat.
  • Stay home if you're not feeling well so that you don't infect co-workers.

Wash, Wipe, and Sanitize

Kimberly-Clark's Healthy Workplace Project, which is about 2 years old, offers employers a bundle of products and education about workplace cleanliness. It is based on the idea that breaking the germ transmission cycle involves three healthy habits—wash, wipe, and sanitize. The program encourages washing hands; wiping down surfaces like doorknobs, elevator buttons, and other commonly touched items; and placing hand sanitizers in heavily trafficked areas of the workplace.

Pilot project results suggest that such steps could deliver an 80 percent reduction in the probability of contracting cold and flu. Tested surfaces were 62 percent cleaner than those not treated. Kimberly-Clark also found that 80 percent of employees felt better about their employer as a result of participating in the program.