January 27, 2014
Why are there more germs in the workplace?

Research studies are finding more germs on common surfaces, causing more illnesses. Germ expert Charles Gerba, PhD, professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, says that’s because employees are touching more germy surfaces at work than ever before.

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We go to bigger office buildings, travel in bigger airplanes, and work out in bigger gyms, he says, and all breeding ground for bacteria, mold, and viruses that are transferred to items in the workplace.

cartoon germ

Gerba says the escalator handrail and the phone are just two of the countless repositories of germs workers encounter every day on the job. He says phones are the worst because they are rarely cleaned or disinfected.

Cleaning crews tend to ignore other objects on the desktop because they are considered employees’ personal space. The problem is that germs easily migrate from the phone to the keyboard, mouse, photocopier, etc.

Then there’s the restroom. Gerba and his colleagues conducted research in several cities. They camped out in office restrooms to see what goes on there, including at the sink. In one city, they found that two-thirds of people washed after using the facilities. Only about half of those used soap and, among those, just half washed for the recommended 15 to 20 seconds.

Gerba says many workplace viruses aren’t serious enough to keep people home. Instead, they come to work sick and, to some degree, infectious. Gerba urges the use of disinfecting wipes around the office and workstation, as well as alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

He advises employers to train workers to think proactively about infection control. That means assuming that everyone is potentially infectious, that the environment is germ-laden, that workers are not using the best personal hygiene practices, and that the maintenance crew is not doing its job. That puts the individual in charge of washing, wiping, and overall vigilance.

Tips to keep germs from keeping workers home
Incorporate these practices to reduce the spread of germs at your workplace this winter:

  • Train maintenance staff to make sure they are not using cleaning cloths or sponges in the restroom and then reusing them in other parts of the workplace. Consider disposable cleaning products.
  • Place hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the workplace, including the break room. One study found that this simple step reduced the spread of viruses by more than 90 percent. Choose sanitizers containing 65 percent to 70 percent alcohol.
  • Encourage employees not to share clothing, razors, towels, cups, or other personal items.
  • Cover broken skin immediately, as intact skin is an important barrier for pathogens.
  • Encourage employees to regularly wipe down their computer, phone, and desktop with disinfecting wipes.
  • If coworkers seem sick, keep a safe distance of at least 6 feet.


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