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Germs Are the Nastiest Coworkers

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’Tis the season to worry about flu germs, and with H1N1 thrown into the mix this year, we’re all wielding our bottles of hand sanitizer and staring down anyone who coughs in stores, on planes, at our children’s schools, and especially where we spend most of our time: at the office. In an ideal world, we’d all ride bubbles to and from work, happily protected from colds and the flu. But, as CDC spokesman Tom Skinner and University of Arizona microbiology professor Charles Gerba say, the best we can really do is be aware of our surroundings and use the tried-and-true methods of protecting ourselves from bacteria and viruses. 


Where Are Those Germs Hiding?
You’d be surprised. Gerba studied several offices in New York, San Francisco, and Tucson to reveal the following hot spots for germs in the workplace:


The bathroom
You know, I like to think we live in a world where strangers hold doors for one another, neighbors greet each other on the street, and people wash their hands after using the bathroom, but that’s not so, according to Richard V. Lee, professor of medicine at the University of Buffalo. Which is scary—just think about the bathroom, then think about what you do in there, and tell me that doesn’t make you want to wash your hands! 


Door handles
Apparently, all these people who aren’t scrubbing up after using the potty are then going out and touching the door handles that you and I touch. Eeew! 


The break room
This is where all the food and eating happens, so you’d hope it would be pretty clean, right? Not necessarily. Ask yourself these questions: Did the person who brewed the coffee wash his or her hands first? How much food is stuck to the inside of the microwave, and how many people have touched the control panel? And when was the last time someone sterilized the sponge or cleaned the handle on the refrigerator? 


The water cooler
Water—clean, pure. No problems here … right? Well, have you ever looked closely at your office water cooler’s internal mechanism? Hello, mold, viruses, and bacteria! Plus, people often put the lip of their water bottle right against the spout, allowing mouth germs to transfer. This doesn’t mean you should ditch the quintessential office gathering space (where else to talk about American Idol?), but someone should run white vinegar through the system at least once a month, and one inch is enough of a distance for the water to get into your bottle or cup. 


Phones, computers, and keyboards; copy and fax machines
Like door handles, any surfaces that many hands touch over the course of a day and that don’t receive regular cleanings are breeding grounds for germs (especially phones, which involve breath and mouth contact, too). Most office-cleaning companies do not touch electronics because the liability of damaging them is too high. Add that to the workaholic habit of eating lunch at your desk, and you get what Gerba calls “the bagel shower”—bits of food and other junk lodged between keyboard keys. The onus of cleaning all electronics falls on office workers, so get your colleagues to help you with a cleaning schedule. Gerba recommends using both an alcohol-based sanitizer and compressed air. 


Pens and pencils
Have a nervous colleague who bites or chews on her writing utensils, or one who sticks them behind his ear? Unless you clearly delineate which pens belong to whom, you’re coming in contact with everything in your coworkers’ mouths. Sign documents with your own pen, and if someone needs to borrow one, tell her she can keep it. 


Cubicle walls
Your workspace may be pristine, but what about the guy next to you whose three-day-old sandwich is still sitting on his desktop? Gerba’s research found that yeast contamination and bacteria multiply and crawl over that particleboard wall. What to do about this, short of becoming the office-hygiene police? If there’s a real problem, speak gently to your neighbor; if he doesn’t clean up his act, it’s within your rights to report the situation as an occupational health hazard. 


Carpeting
They look great, feel even better, and help control sound, but carpets harbor bacteria and mold. Make sure your company gets its rugs steam-cleaned regularly with an industrial vacuum that has a filter. 


While these hot spots occur across professions, Gerba did find that some fields were better off than others were in terms of office hygiene. Probably because they work with children, teachers proved the worst in his study, with three times as many germs per square inch than bankers, the next-most-contaminated professionals. The cleanest were lawyers—Gerba suspects that’s because they tend to be good at sticking to regimens. 


Before You Build That Bubble …
There are ways you can protect yourself from the onslaught of germs you encounter every day at the office. The most important step you can take is to wash your hands for twenty seconds after coming in contact with any of the above danger zones. And though a hand sanitizer will do in a pinch, Dean Cliver, a professor of food safety at the University of California, reminds us that soapy water works much better to remove debris than a topical alcohol-based sanitizer does. You’ll need lotion, too—not because it will ward off germs, but because your hands will be raw from so much washing. 


Also be aware of how much you touch your face. The average office worker performs this mindless act an average of eighteen times an hour, according to Elizabeth Scott of the Simmons Center for Hygiene and Health in Boston. That brings germs awfully close to your nose and mouth, the gateways to your respiratory and digestive systems, leaving you vulnerable to illness. 


And don’t eat lunch at your desk! Gerba calls out women especially on this issue. We’re the ones who tend to bring our lunch to work, eat hunched over our keyboards, and leave healthy, biodegradable snacks like apples and bananas stashed in our desk drawers. That’s just asking for trouble. Eat away from your desk (you could use the break anyway), wash your hands afterward, and keep all food in a refrigerator with a schedule for throwing away whatever has been in there for more than two weeks. 


Germs Are Everywhere
That’s right: everywhere! Now, now—lest we get alarmist here, keep in mind that we come into contact with both good and bad bacteria every day. Our immune systems simply learn how to deal; it’s only on the very rare occasions that they don’t that we get sick. You can’t just stop going to work—or anywhere, for that matter—for fear of getting sick. But washing your hands after touching office hot spots is the first step toward keeping yourself sniffle-free.

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