Sick? It really is better to stay home

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Copy of NM open plan office

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A quarter of those polled get cross if someone uses their desk and leaves it in a mess.

London - We’ve all had that sinking feeling when a colleague comes to work coughing and sneezing.

And new research suggests it really is better if they stay at home, such is the speed that germs spread around an office.

Scientists at the University of Arizona have discovered that when even one person comes to work sick, more than half of the commonly touched surfaces in the office will become infected with the virus by lunchtime.

Some of the likeliest germ hotpots include telephones, desktops, tabletops, doorknobs, photocopier and lift buttons and the office fridge.

However the study also revealed that simple interventions, such as hand washing and the use of hand sanitisers or wipes, can drastically reduce employees’ risk of infection.

Conducted in an office, the study included about 80 participants, some of whom received droplets on their hands at the start of a normal work day.

While most of those droplets were plain water, one person unknowingly received a droplet containing artificial viruses mimicking the cold, the flu and a stomach bug.

Employees were instructed to go about their day as usual. After about four hours, researchers sampled commonly-touched surfaces in the office, as well as employees’ hands, and found that more than 50 percent of surfaces and employees were infected with at least one of the viruses.

“We were actually quite surprised by how effectively everything spread,” said Kelly Reynolds, associate professor of public health at the University of Arizona. “I didn’t expect to find it as much as I did.”

And that was in an office environment where people work primarily in isolated spaces, she added.

“There weren’t a lot of people roaming around. They basically go in their offices, sit in their chairs and are on their computers. They may go to the bathroom, and they have a common kitchen area and a photocopier, but that’s about it.”

Researchers swabbed surfaces and hands again at the end of the work day. By then, the cold and flu viruses, known for their short survival time, had dissipated, but the stomach virus had continued to spread, infecting up to 70 percent of surfaces tested.

“We really felt that the hand was quicker than the sneeze in the spread of disease,” said Charles Gerba, co-principal investigator on the study.

“Most people think it’s coughing and sneezing that spread germs, but the number of objects you touch is incredible, especially in this push-button generation. We push more buttons than any other generation in history.

“The key message is to stay at home when you’re sick.”

Although the cold and flu germs had died off by the day’s end, risk to employees was still high since little exposure is necessary to make someone sick, Reynolds said.

The researchers calculated that employees faced a 40 percent to 90 percent chance of infection with one of the three viruses.

The same study then was repeated with a “Healthy Workplace Intervention” in place. Employees were given free tissues, disinfecting wipes and a bottle of hand sanitiser and were instructed to wash their hands before eating lunch and after meeting with a large number of people.

With those simple interventions in place, risk of infection dropped below 10 percent.

“The take-home message here is that very simple interventions that we all kind of know about have great efficacy,” Reynolds said.

“Using tissues to wipe your face, using hand sanitiser or having it available for use, and washing your hands before lunch and after a big meeting resulted in an 80 percent reduction across the board, for all three viruses, in their risk of infection.” – Daily Mail

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