Surviving Germs at Work

Germs at work can be quite a health hazard, whether it is from simple colds and 'flu's or more frightening infections. Few of us have total control over our working environment. Keeping healthy while working in a stuffy office or grimy workshop can be a challenge.

It can be really easy to pick up germs at work; door handles, computer keyboards and washroom fixtures, even hand dryers, are all common places where germs may lurk - and be exchanged.

Here are some ideas for surviving and repelling germs at work without alienating your work colleagues.

Strategies for improving hygiene at work 

A clean workspace may well be beyond the remit of most people working in shops, offices and factories. Most companies have their own standards and ways of doing things which can be difficult to influence or control if you are not so high in the company hierarchy.

Nevertheless, there may be some things you can do to improve workplace hygiene.

You can take responsibility for your immediate environment, perhaps, by wiping down surfaces, cleaning your computer keyboard or the office telephone. You do not have to use chemical cleaning agents. Many of the excellent green cleaning products available in health food shops and other retail outlets will help you deter bugs without poisoning the atmosphere or wider environment.

Cleaning around work areas can be done with vinegar and microfibre cloths which are antibacterial. This is a far greener approach to cleaning up than using harsh toxic chemicals.

Fresh air, exercise and good green living

outdoor coffee break by St Pancras

As well as maintaining a healthy working environment, regular exercise in the fresh air can be a great aid to keeping fit and repelling all those germs and viruses which hang about the workplace. A healthy immune system can be one of the best ways to insure yourself against germs at work.

Picture: An outdoor coffee break can be a good excuse to get some fresh air and clear away germs from the workplace.

See if you can go for a fast walk in the lunch hour, or make a policy of stepping outside into a clean air space a few times a day. This need not affect productivity because the refreshment given by such a short break goes a long way to help with clarity of mind and to help repel cough and cold viruses and other germs at work.

If the air around you is reasonably clean and fresh, then deep breathing can also be a health-booster.

Walking up stairs rather than taking the lift can also be another good way to both take a change of air and get some valuable exercise. Walking is a near perfect exercise and has many benefits. If you can walk all or part of the way to work you will improve your overall health and boost your immunity to whatever the workplace throws at you.

Which soap?

As regards soap, a pure and natural one is far better for people in the workplace than chemical anti-bacterial soaps and hand wash. This is largely because these products have been found to make people less immune to bacteria as they wipe out most of them to an unnatural extent, leaving skin prone to more virulent bacteria.

Our skin maintains a delicate balance of bacteria and many of them are harmless or even beneficial. Agents such as triclosan - a common ingredient in anti-bacterial soaps - are environmentally damaging and are thought to encourage the more damaging bacteria become more resistant and dangerous.

It's perhaps worth mentioning that soap is itself mildly anti-bacterial and will offer real protection from picking up germs at work, if used reasonably frequently. It is mild enough not to interfere with the body's own defences.

Another ploy is to wipe handles and other places which are frequently touched by different people. Use vinegar solution on a cloth or a green cleaning wipe.

Computer keyboards and mice should be wiped frequently to stop cross-infection. Germs at work can easily be spread when equipment is used by more than one person.

Phones are also another vector for infection which should be wiped as often as is practical so that a clean environment is maintained.

Personal hygiene, body sprays and cold showers!

Heavy perfumes and body sprays are worth avoiding as they may trigger allergies in some people. 

Many artificial fragrances are damaging to the wider environment, too. Fragrance-free soap is a good choice or alternatively, soaps with small amounts of natural, plant-based fragrance are acceptable to most people and do not usually cause problems.

There is now a good range of natural products available for personal hygiene, including aluminium-free and paraben-free deodorants. For safety it is always worth checking the EWG database for products that contain dangerous chemicals. They also list environmental toxins. 

Some people swear by the invigorating power of cold showers. One of my family who worked in a large, busy office for many years claimed that he never caught germs at work or other bugs partly because of his habit of taking a cold shower every morning. Not everyone will feel equal to this, I guess - but a quick cold rinse down after showering may be almost as good.

Hand dryers or paper towels?

It is important that we all wash our hands effectively after using the toilet or just after working for a while in a busy working environment where other people, goods and /or animals are present and moving about.

Paper towels offer a great way to get an individual and clean piece of absorbent material to dry our hands. And they are quick to use - at least as fast as the fastest modern air dryers. But they can be messy and may even spread diseases if used towels are not suitably disposed of. They are also another strain on our diminishing resources. Ancient forests have been clear-felled just to provide these conveniences for offices and households.

An efficient electric hand-dryer may be perceived as more effective in preventing the spread of disease than the use of paper or cloth towels. This is not strictly true. 

Many people today prefer electric hand dryers. They are reasonably quick and convenient - especially the air blades which are now fitted in many modern offices and workplaces. The Dyson air blade has won awards for its speed and efficiency. But even so, it is still rated as less efficient at destroying bacteria than a simple paper towel.

A study by Westminster University concluded that a jet air dryer (such as the Dyson) would spread bacteria around more than other methods of drying. Even worse, the study revealed that air dryers could act as a reservoir for contaminants. For these reasons, places where avoiding cross-contamination is really important - schools, clinics, hospitals and the like are recommended to use disposable paper towels. Provided that the waste towels are collected and disposed of properly, this is the most effective way of keeping the workplace clean and reducing infection from workplace germs.

But there is a carbon cost, too. The debate as to which is better - electric hand dryers or paper towels will probably run and run. Several studies have shown that there is not a lot of difference in terms of energy use. Hand dryers are becoming more efficient and paper towel manufacturers are making efforts to use more environmentally friendly production methods.

If the hand-dryers in your work place are inefficient or run long after the user has gone, try to encourage the management to install more eco-friendly ones. The older models can be noisy and costly to run.

Whichever you have in your workplace, if they are kept clean and well maintained - and hot water and soap are provided - they should do a good job of helping to prevent the transmission of germs and other pathogens. This is true if the workforce is helped to good hygiene practices by management and legislation. But there is no substitute for the vigilance by the workforce. So if you have concerns about the hygiene standards and practices at your place of work - well sometimes it pays to make a noise!

Certainly, there is a public health benefit from people in all walks of life behaving responsibly and helping to maintain and promote good health and hygiene in the workplace. In the UK there are now councils which give out healthy workplace awards to celebrate good practice in local companies.

A healthy work environment

Another green living approach to the workplace is to ensure that spaces are well ventilated and heating and lighting is well controlled for both efficiency and health. A healthy workplace is a more effective workplace.

I well remember the deadening effect of stuffy, noisy offices where the windows were rarely opened. Back in the day, office staff were even allowed to smoke. No wonder many of us suffered headaches and frequent colds!

It is interesting to note how steeply the asthma rate in children has declined since the introduction of the UK smoking ban. People are gradually becoming aware of the need for clean, fresh air in all parts of our lives.


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