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Published: Tuesday, 5/23/2006

Germ Wars

Is your job making you sick? Find out how you can stay healthy at work.

Peter Miller

By Teri Robinson

CTW Features

The next time you drop that Raisinet on your computer keyboard, you might want to think twice before you pick it up and pop it into your mouth. Particularly if you are a teacher, accountant or banker. According to a new study, Germs in the Workplace, conducted by Dr. Charles Gerba and funded by the Clorox Company, teachers and accountants top the list of germiest employees (at the bottom of the heap – publicists and lawyers).

The study showed that the bacteria levels in accountants' offices soared nearly seven times higher than those in lawyers' offices. Gerba and his research team spent a considerable amount of time last fall collecting samples from office areas – desktops, keyboards, phones, mice, etc. – in private offices and cubicles in office buildings in Tucson, Ariz., and Washington, D.C. The team tested a total of 616 surfaces and then analyzed them in laboratories at the University of Arizona. Earlier surveys looked at viruses, which Gerba notes can survive on surfaces for up to three days, while the criteria was revised this time around to study the proliferation of bacteria.

Not surprisingly, the telephone turned out to be the surface most infested with bacteria and other germs. Teachers' phones were particularly germy: hardly a leap either considering that their co-workers are mostly with children, the Petri dishes of the human race. The phones, desks and keyboards of teachers, accountants and bankers showed from two to 20 times more bacteria per square inch than those of other professions. Germs fared worse on the phones of publicists who somehow managed to keep the count down.

With evidence like that, is it any wonder, then, that someone always seems to be sick in the office? And how can workers stay healthy in the face of such germ warfare?

It's in the best interest of both the employee and the employer to have a healthy work environment and workforce. In addition to the air of malaise that can descend when an illness makes its way through a workforce, it can cost an employer significantly in dollars and lost productivity when workers are out sick or continue to work while ill. And the drop in morale when illness seems to hang on is really immeasurable. Plus, when germs go unchecked, disease can spread quickly and decimate a workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the U.S. Department of Labor, a total of 1.3 million injuries and illnesses in private industry required recuperation away from work beyond the day of the incident in 2004. The median days away from work was seven days in 2004.

Keeping healthy in the workplace is not an easy task but there are some rules of thumb employees can follow and companies can impress upon their employees. While it might seem like a good idea to eke out every workable minute from their employees, that type of environment makes it difficult for employees to call in sick without seeming like slackers. And while it seems noble and dedicated to show up when you're on death's door, think twice about it. It is better for the employee, co-workers and the company if you just stay home until you're feeling better.

In fact, it is not a bad idea to follow the same rules that almost any elementary school nurse doles out, based on guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health:

Stay home until you're fever free for 24 hours.

In cases of chicken pox (not fun as an adult) or other rash-related diseases like impetigo, do not return until the affected areas have healed up.

Call in if you have a stomach virus. Not only is it difficult to work while nauseated, these types of viruses are the some of the most easily spread.

Anyone with strep throat should be on antibiotics for 24 hours before venturing back into the office.

And, conjunctivitis, the dreaded pink eye, requires a round of antibiotic drops and probably a visit to the doctor to get the all-clear.

There are a few things that can be done around the office as well to rid the workplace of germs.

First and foremost, notes Gerba, wash your hands. They are the main mode of transportation for germs from your desktop into your body. Think how often you touch your nose and mouth during the course of the day: if you don't think you do, put chalk on your fingertips and count the number of smudges on your face at the end of the workday.

And you don't have to go all Martha Stewart on everyone, but clean your desktop regularly with an antibacterial cleanser. Be sure to wipe down your phone, mouse, keyboard and even your monitor.

Also, try not to eat at your desk, something most employees do as they attempt to squeeze in more work time. According to a survey from the American Dietician Association, 57 percent of workers eat at their desks at least one time during the day. The survey found that more than 75 percent of workers only occasionally clean their desks before they eat and 20 percent never do. So instead of gaining more work time, you'll probably end up creating a breeding ground for bacteria and a mode of transporting them to yourself and others.

Desks are really bacteria cafeterias, said Dr. Gerba. They're breakfast buffets, lunch tables and snack bars, as we spend more and more hours at the office.

There is some good news, though. Gerba's team found there was a noticeable decline in germs in the workplace this time around. We were pleased to find a decrease in bacteria levels. Perhaps people are becoming more aware of germs in their office and doing something about it, said Gerba.

I spritz my desk down occasionally, said one Manhattan office worker, who trains employees at her firm and shares a desk with night shift workers. In the background, her supervisors can be heard telling a working who has called in to stay at home. No need to make everyone else sick, he explained, noting that strep is making its rounds at the office.

CTW Features



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