How to keep your office germ-freeHere are a few of the places germs tend to hide — and what to do to avoid them.
It happens every year: You hear breakroom chatter about how Suzy in marketing went home with a stomach bug. Then, before you know it, half your department has come down with something. So you start pushing elevator buttons with your elbow, opening restroom doors with your shirtsleeve, and using hand sanitizer by the gallons. You’re in the clear, right?
Not necessarily. The close confines of your workplace may promote collaboration, but they also encourage the dispersal of germs. According to Dr. Charles Gerba, professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona, respiratory bugs and viruses can scatter throughout a workplace in as few as four hours. And germs lurk in the most unexpected places.
The Dirtiest Place in the Office
The restroom may seem like the office’s top spot for bacteria and viruses, but it’s probably one of the cleaner areas, says Gerba, because the cleaning staff regularly wipe down toilet seats and sinks with disinfectant. Believe it or not, the worst area is the shared kitchen. Harmful microorganisms thrive on refrigerator, microwave, and faucet handles as well as water fountain and vending machine buttons.
What You Should Absolutely Avoid
Ground zero for germs? The communal kitchen sponge. Because bacteria thrive in warm, moist environments, stay away from the office’s dishwasher as well, suggests Carolyn Forté, director of Good Housekeeping Research Institute's home appliances and cleaning products department.
Chances are, it’s going to be difficult to stay out of your office kitchen. After lunch, skip the sponge — rinse and wipe out your lunch container with a paper towel, and then clean it thoroughly at home. If you must use the shared sponge, definitely wash any container again in your dishwasher at home, says Dr. Bettina Knoll, assistant professor of infectious diseases at Brown University.
To help keep harmful microbes from collecting on a shared sponge, squeeze as much water as possible out of it when you're finished using it and, if it'a available, apply bleach. Otherwise, toss the sponge and use a new one frequently.
Also, ask someone from your building’s facilities management group to provide disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer in common areas. Their presence promotes the cleaning of shared items, which cuts down on contamination, says Gerba.
Keep Your Desk Clean
Common areas aren’t the only hot spots for germs. Desks, phones, and keyboards are major culprits, too. Do you have lunch at your desk? According to a 2011 study that appeared in the American Journal of Infection Control, keyboards used by workers who commonly ate at their desks showed higher levels of bacterial contamination.
You can keep your desk area relatively germ-free by regularly using disinfecting wipes on your phone, the top of your desk, and your computer keyboard. Clean your keyboard every few days, particularly if you eat near it. To do this, turn the keyboard upside down over the garbage can while shaking and tapping it on the back to remove any crumbs that collect in between the keys during the day, says Forté.
Take Preventative Steps
If you’re not there, you can’t spread your germs. So if you’re sick, stay home. And take a preventative approach: Get a flu shot. But sometimes, despite your best efforts, you’ve contaminated others before you even know you’re sick. Be a smart sneezer by covering your nose and mouth with the crook of your elbow, vampire-style. Cover your mouth with tissues when you cough — and throw them directly in the trash. Don’t put them on your desk to contaminate the next person who comes by your cube.
And it goes without saying, but regularly washing your hands with soap and water goes a long way in stopping the spread of germs. (Proper hand washing involves scrubbing your hands together for at least 20 seconds with soap.)
Keep hand sanitizer in your purse or at your desk for those instances when you can’t get to the sink — like when you're running late for a meeting. An alcohol-based sanitizer is the best bet, says Gerba.
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