5 ways germs are spread around your business: What you can do about it

Poor hygiene can dramatically affect your business. How do you combat this?

It's a fact of life that one in four office workers don't wash their hands after using the toilet. This is one of the many reasons that make workplaces the ideal environment for people and germs to interact. Unfortunately, this also has the potential to impact the health of staff and the day-to-day operations of a business, especially when it causes absenteeism and loss of productivity.

Because of a negative risk culture in the workplace, some employees don’t understand the hazards that germs present. They don't realise that viruses can spread through an office within hours of a single contamination. So in the interests of a healthier business, we’ve outlined the five ways that viruses and bacteria circulate throughout a workplace, and offer some advice on what you can do to combat their impact.

1. Airborne

This is the classic method that spreads ailments such as the common cold. People sneeze or cough, often without shielding their mouth, and everyone in the workplace is at risk of exposure.

Also, the 'sneeze effect' in toilets means that a simple flush can spread bacteria around a cubicle, over toilet paper and as far as six metres from the toilet bowl. This means that toilet germs can spread to your hands and onto other surfaces later.

2. Skin contact

A common way for germs to move around the workplace is through direct skin contact – most commonly, shaking hands. We can also transmit germs through simple courtesies such as holding open a door for a colleague.

After using a toilet, one hand can carry about 80 million bacteria per square centimetre, and contaminated hands can transfer viruses to five or more surfaces, or 14 other objects.

3. Contaminated objects and surfaces

Bacteria and viruses can survive on surfaces such as desks and keyboards, and objects like telephones, fridges, microwaves and other shared appliances, for up to 24 hours.

We know from studies that we can find about 1200 organisms per square centimetre on a computer keyboard and more than 1000 per square centimetre on a mouse. Over the course of a day, you might pick up some bacteria and transfer them to your nose or mouth if you eat at your desk without washing your hands.

4. Contaminated food

Communal kitchens are notorious breeding grounds for bacteria, especially if food is undercooked or not disposed of promptly, or surfaces are not cleaned correctly. Kitchens are high-traffic areas where people are constantly crossing paths. And where there are people, there are problems.

About 16 per cent of us carry the norovirus without any symptoms. We may feel healthy, but we could be carrying that organism and spreading it to other surfaces around the office inadvertently – including the kitchen – if we don’t wash our hands after going to the toilet.

5. Bodily fluids

Saliva is the most likely body fluid to be unintentionally spread in the workplace when an infected person sneezes, while urine can also pose a problem in bathrooms that are not regularly cleaned and disinfected.

The bad news is: germs are everywhere and they’re not going anywhere. However, there is much we can do as individuals and as organisations to restrict the influence of germs in the workplace.

Develop a risk-aware culture

The primary reason for developing a coordinated approach to workplace hygiene is to enable a business to maximise productivity and staff satisfaction. Managing a risk such as employee illness should be an integral part of a business’s organisational processes.

The best organisations will structure their hygiene strategy, communicate it clearly to employees, assess it regularly and update it when appropriate. Staff also need to understand the risks of poor hygiene so they embrace the culture as part of their daily activities.

Management is pivotal in building awareness

Managers are crucial in moulding an organisation's hygiene culture, starting with using their own behaviour as an example to others. They need to make sure they identify the correct channels to communicate the healthy workplace strategy, such as regular staff meetings, staff newsletters, posters, broadcast email and social media.

Managers must also prioritise hygiene awareness and motivate staff about the policy. They should then maintain the momentum and keep hygiene firmly on the organisation’s agenda, with clear processes in place if they need to elevate concerns to senior management.

Training and ongoing education are crucial

The organisation’s staff induction program is the best place to begin your efforts to build a hygiene-conscious culture. Staff may need reminders about why certain behaviour is important, so ongoing education and training – with definitive policies that everyone can understand – are critical to reinforcing the organisation's hygiene message.

Best practice workplace hygiene

Most hygienic workplace practices are common sense. Some fundamental infection control measures include:

Prioritising handwashing and providing the correct solutions: Effective handwashing is one of the simplest ways to stop infection in the office. It’s been found that 47 per cent of illness can be reduced by people simply washing their hands effectively.

Keeping workplace surfaces clean: Office workers’ hands come into contact with 10 million bacteria every day. If that's not sobering enough, try this: You will find more than 10,000 organisms per square centimetre on an office telephone. This means it's imperative we all do what we can to keep our workplaces clean.

Contracting a commercial cleaning service: Regular treatments to sanitise and disinfect a workplace will always be worth the investment if it helps keep your employees healthy.

Encouraging staff to stay home when they are sick: In the event that people do fall ill, they should feel that they can stay home to help prevent spreading an illness to colleagues.

Managing an organisation's hygiene-conscious culture is a difficult task. It takes commitment from senior management, practical ideas that people trust, strong processes, continual assessment and evidence to show that all the effort is making a difference.

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18th September 2017
Tania Dalton, Research & Innovation, Initial Hygiene
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