Germs in the Workplace: Communicating Health Information for Wellness

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Germs are tiny microorganisms that exist all around us and are invisible to the human eye. There are many different types of germs. Most are not harmful, but some cause infectious diseases. Most of us probably already know about various infectious diseases. There are vaccines to prevent some of these from infecting us and medicines to treat others who have been infected; but there aren’t vaccines and medicines for every kind of infectious diseases.

Author: Dr. Robert C. Chandler

For resilient wellness, it is important to know about germs and infectious diseases, and simple ways to avoid contracting and spreading them.

Germs have favorite places to thrive, preferred ways to travel, and if they are harmful, their own unique ways of causing disease in humans. Germs can live in or on dirt, water, countertops, our skin, our intestines and in many other places around us. Some germs can survive on their own while others prefer living inside of people or animals. Some germs live only in warm or hot environments while others live only in cold or even freezing conditions. When germs find a place that is good for them, they multiply and set up a home for themselves.

Germs spread in different ways. To catch an infectious disease, you first need to be exposed to a harmful germ. Then it needs to travel on or into your body and act in its unique ways to infect disease. Our bodies are good at fighting infections; not everybody who is exposed to germs will get sick, but some will. Here are the most common ways to be exposed:

  • Direct Contact: Some germs live in body fluids like mucus, pus and stool. Even the invisible drops released when people talk, cough or sneeze can carry germs. Touching a contaminated surface or object, then touching your eyes, nose, mouth, a cut or other opening in the body, can lead to an infectious disease. Some germs exist in food and untreated water. Unwashed fruits and vegetables, and foods not properly cooked or kept at the right temperature, may carry harmful germs.
  • Respiration: Some germs spread through the air. When someone coughs, sneezes or talks they can release germs. When harmful germs are inhaled, they can cause illness.
  • Skin breaks or bites: Animals can carry and spread infectious diseases to people. Bites from wild animals, pets or even a small animal like a bat or insect can cause illness. Even if the animal doesn’t look sick, it may carry harmful germs.
  • Infectious diseases are also spread through sexual contact, during pregnancy from a mother to an unborn child, from sharing needles, blood transfusions and through other ways.

Germs in the Workplace

Germs are found everywhere. One important vector for encountering germs is in the workplace. (Germs In The Workplace). Knowledge, understanding and information about germs in the workplace is not only that could someone become sick, but people being ill may slow productivity. “Germs are lurking all over the workplace.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that up to 80 percent of all infections are spread by hand contact with contaminated surfaces and direct human contact. So, most of the places we touch and encounter are likely harbors of germs. Per the National Health Interview Survey, influenza alone is responsible for about 200 million days of reduced productivity and 75 million days of work absence annually.”

Germs at Work

We tend to find the most germs in the places you would think they would be found. General health research points to telephones being one of the major violators, if not the worst, with untold numbers of hands on them and mouths near them, the community telephone is the biggest offenders when it comes to finding germs. Scientists say office telephones can hold more than 25,000 germs per square inch. To prevent the spread of germs when using the phone, users should wipe off handsets and keypads with sanitizing wipes after using them and periodically throughout the day.

Next in line are elevator buttons. Untold thousands of fingers pushing them, and in some buildings, it may be numbers in the thousands daily, and no telling how long between cleanings, if ever. Thousands of people use the elevators of office buildings every day. Protect yourself against dirty elevator buttons by using an elbow or knuckle instead of fingertips to push the buttons if you can.

Water fountains are next. Not the kind with the jug on top of all natural spring water, but rather the old type that people drink directly from. It is estimated that there are 2.7 million bacteria per square inch on public drinking fountains! A good alternative to using the workplace water fountain is bringing water from home in a sports bottle.

Image credit: CDC

Following close behind the drinking fountain is the computer keyboard. Computer keyboards have hands on them all day. If someone is sick with the flu, or “just got over it” and has been coughing into their hands then touching their keyboards, the germs are content to wait for the next human to contact them. Researchers have found that a computer keyboard may have as many as 200 times more bacteria on them than does a public toilet seat! Shared computers are especially hazardous. Using disinfecting wipes that remove dirt, dust, dander and biological contaminants are good for cleaning keyboards. Because wet materials can interfere with the functionality of keyboards, it’s a good idea to check with the IT department for recommendations on which products to use.

Karen Gibbs, (Today Show). Asked “What’s the germiest item in the office?” She found that per Mark Searcy, a divisional manager of Coverall North America, Inc. a commercial cleaning service, it’s the faucet handles in the kitchen and break room.

Dr. Jesse Miller, Director of the Applied Research Center, NSF International, and University of Arizona microbiologist, Dr. Charles Gerba, investigated what other germ-magnets are lurking in the workplace. They identified four germ hotspots in the typical workplace.

Germ hotspot #1: The Break Room

Per NSF International, germs thrive in moist and warm environments, that’s why the following kitchen and break room items topped the list as hot beds for yeast, mold and bacteria.

Coffee maker

NSF germ studies found coliform bacteria, an indicator of fecal contamination, in 50% of the coffee reservoirs of coffee makers. (The recommended fix: Wash your hands before preparing coffee. Also, make sure to flush the reservoir with white distilled vinegar once a week, recommends Coverall North America. And don’t forget to wash and dry the coffee pot, especially the handle, every day.)

Sponges/dish rags

200,000 times dirtier than a toilet seat, sponges and dish rags are tiny hotbeds for kitchen germs. (The recommended fix: Run, don’t walk, to the office sponge/dish rag, toss it in the trash and replace it with paper towels pronto!)

Kitchen sinks

Sinks in the kitchen and bathroom are usually badly neglected. In fact, NSF found 45% had coliform and other bacteria. (The recommended fix: Keep germs from overpopulating by cleaning the sink with a disinfecting wipe, like Clorox or Lysol, daily or as often as possible.)

Faucet handles

Because of contact with food, kitchen faucet handles have more germs than faucet handles in the bathroom. But they both pass along germs every time you turn on and off the tap. (The recommended fix: Use a paper towel to turn faucets. Also, cut the germ-breeding cycle by wiping faucet handles with a disinfecting wipe first thing in the morning.)

Countertops

Between food prep debris and splashes from the sink, more than 32% of countertops tested harbored coliform bacteria. (The recommended fix: Clean the counter after each use and wipe with a disinfecting wipe every morning.)

Germ hotspot #2: Your desk

According to Dr. Gerba, if it’s on a desk and a hand touches it, it’s germy. Think about it. Hands turn dirty doorknobs, navigate public transportation, and push germ-rich elevator buttons — all before they enter the workplace. In order to break what Gerba calls the cycle of movement of these germs, wash your hands as soon as you enter the office. Hand sanitizer works as well. Also, wipe your work-area with a disinfecting wipe regularly, taking note, especially, of the following:

Office phone

“When it comes to germs on a desk, the office phone wins’ hands-down,” says Gerba. “People don’t realize it but they talk ‘dirty’ all day long,” he laughs. (The fix: Wipe the phone every morning with a disinfecting wipe and make sure hands are clean and free of food before making calls.)

Image credit: CDC

Desktop

“Most people don’t clean the desktop until they stick to it,” comments Gerba. But every day, the desktop is eaten on, sneezed on, coughed on and touched constantly by germy hands. (The recommended fix: Clean it with a disinfecting wipe or microfiber cloth every morning before beginning work. Or as often as you can get around to it.)

Computer keyboard

Probably the one item you touch most — and nosh bagels over, too — keyboards should be cleaned with a disinfecting wipe each morning and turned over often to shake out debris.

Cell phone

We carry our cell phone everywhere and that makes it a veritable germ-buffet for your fingers — the same fingers that touch your face, mouth and eyes. “Colds are spread more by the hand than by sneezing,” says Gerba, and now you know why. (The recommended fix: Disinfecting wipes, microfiber cloth, E-cloth, and made-for-phone wipes are good ways to clean your cell phone. As always, follow manufacturer’s instructions.)

Germ hotspot #3: Communal areas

The one thing that’s worse than your germy hands touching something is an office full of germy hands touching the same thing. (The recommended fix: Use a disinfecting wipe every day to clean conference and dining tables, and buttons on things like the copier, elevator and water cooler. If it can’t be done daily, do it as regularly as possible.)

Communal coffee cups

“Sixty percent have fecal bacteria on them,” reports Gerba. (The recommended fix: Use disposable cups when you want some fresh-brewed java. Or use your own and don’t share it even if it has been rinsed or washed.)

Germ hotspot #4: Women’s purses and guy’s messenger bags

Beware the bottoms of these items — when you place them at your feet when riding the bus or train, it picks up some gnarly germs. One-third have coliform bacteria on them, says Gerba. (The recommended fix: Wipe often with microfiber or E-cloth or use a disinfecting spray, like Clorox 4 in 1, that’s made for soft surfaces.)

Don’t overlook the Bathrooms

Workplace bathrooms are some of the germiest places in the workplace. E. coli and fecal toxins are often found on nearly every surface in the bathroom, including doors and faucet handles. To prevent the spread of harmful bacteria, use paper towels to turn faucets on and off and to open the door before exiting.

Bathrooms have bacteria everywhere! Did you know that if you do not close the toilet seat before you flush water droplets literally spray into the air as far as twenty feet carrying untold contaminates, including fecal matter, to settle onto just about every surface in the room? Bathrooms are usually high on the cleaning list, but consider in a very large, very busy office building, it may only get cleaned once or twice a week. How many uncovered flushes between cleaning do you think there might be? One could be too many. (Remember to turn faucets off with a paper towel to avoid re-contaminating after washing, and open the door with one too.)

In Yuck! The Germiest Things in the Workplace the writer says considering the amount of time most Americans spend at work, it’s no surprise that offices, factories and other work facilities are hotbeds for bacteria and viruses.

Preventing Disease and Promote Wellness

Knowing what surfaces in the workplace provide the greatest risk for disease transmission allows people to better prevent the spread of germs.

There are preventative measures for each of these hotspots, some of which are mentioned above.handwashing

However, the foundational key to wellness is to consistently and frequently wash your hands, wash them a lot, especially anytime you use the shared phone, shared keyboard or any other surfaces frequented by many hands.

Since hand washing is one of the most important steps we can take to prevent the spread of germs and getting sick is hand washing, the CDC even offers tips on the right way of washing hands, including when soap and water aren’t available.

Although germs live everywhere, taking a few steps in the workplace to minimize exposure can greatly reduce the risk of spreading infection.

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