Summer is now over and we are officially into autumn which means the perennial office cold is about to rear its ugly head. Laura King investigates how good office hygiene can stop germs spreading and what facilities and health and safety managers can do to help.

Over the years, numerous studies and swabbing exercises have shown that although desks and offices may appear to be clean, they are in fact breeding grounds for germs and bacteria. From coffee pots to lift buttons; keyboards to ID badges, the levels of bacteria found on everyday office items are often significantly higher than on items you would associate with being dirty, such as a toilet seat or money.

Furthermore, germs do not stay still. Our hands provide a very effective highway for bacteria and viruses to transfer from surfaces to our face, nose and mouth; and if we are the one carrying an infectious bug, they spread from us onto the surfaces we touch. Indeed, a study from the University of Arizona showed that within four hours more than 50% of commonly-touched surfaces can be infected by a virus if one person in an office is ill. Communal items such as telephones, desk tops and coffee pot handles were some of the likeliest culprits. The study also tested people’s hands and found that within four hours 50% of people were also infected — this figure rose to 70% by the end of the day.

Of course, viruses that hang around for longer — such as some stomach bugs — are much more likely to spread, but not all of the viruses will be infectious by the end of the day. Some, for example flu viruses, only remain infectious for 15 minutes on skin. However, with estimates suggesting that we touch our face up to 3000 times a day, it is easy to understand how bugs can spread from a surface such as a keyboard or telephone to our noses and mouths.

Simple interventions can make a huge difference. The same study at the University of Arizona found that when employees were provided free tissues, disinfecting wipes and a bottle of hand sanitiser, and were instructed to wash their hands before eating lunch and after meetings with large numbers of people, their chance of catching a virus declined from between 40–90% to less than 10%. The study did not cover a large number of working environments — it only focused on around 80 people in an office where employees were relatively isolated. However, although the figures are not necessarily replicable, experience indicates that the principles should broadly remain the same.

Facilities and health and safety managers can do a lot to help prevent the spread of germs, and with flu season starting in early winter, now is the time to get tough on office hygiene. Here are four ways to help.

Where are your high-risk areas?

Conduct an audit of areas of high risk in the office. Two key places to focus on will be communal areas that are predominantly kept clean during the day by staff, such as desks and kitchens; and shared items that people regularly touch such as the kettle, microwave dials, printer buttons, or telephones.

Have a clear idea of where these areas are and review your cleaning schedule to ensure that they are sufficiently covered. It might be the case that the cleaner will clean the kitchen surfaces, but will not clean the front of the microwave or kettle handle. A colour-coding system should also be used when cleaning to make sure that the same cloths and mops used in the bathroom or office are not being used in the communal kitchen. After all, you would expect colour-coded systems to be used in a restaurant, and an office kitchen is essentially an unregulated eating establishment.

Similarly, check whether or not desks and work spaces are clear enough for cleaners to be able to access at the end of the day. Desks should be cleaned with anti-bacterial spray daily, and equipment such as printers should be dusted and disinfected on a weekly basis.

While conducting an audit, also consider where there is the potential to improve hygiene, for example by installing hand sanitiser dispensers in high-traffic areas or by making sure systems and products designed to prevent the spread of germs are obvious, visible and available to use.

Hand sanitiser in stock?

The study at the University of Arizona showed that low-cost items such as tissues, clinical wipes and hand sanitiser made a big difference to potential levels of infection. Now is the time to make sure that the office is well-stocked and that employees know how to access products that will help them keep their areas of the office clean.

While checking stocks, also make sure that there are no issues with supplies for bathrooms or other hand-washing areas.

Are your employees educated?

Do your employees understand how germs can spread and where they are harboured? Simple steps such as regular and proper handwashing, sanitising hands after touching communal items, and disinfecting personal work areas and equipment can help bring levels of bacteria down and stop germs spreading.

Similarly, employees should also be aware of how food and coffee cups left on desks can encourage bacteria and fungus to grow — including inside keyboards! Dirty dishes should not be left at desks overnight, and staff should be able to clean out their keyboards with high pressure air and clinical wipes. Food stored in drawers should be kept in sealed containers, thrown away or taken home. Not only does unsealed food encourage pests, it also provides a fertile feeding ground for bacteria and fungus.

Awareness can be gained through poster campaigns in hot spot areas, occasional emails reminding people to wipe down their desks, or even quizzes. It is also worth explaining to people how to use the products. For example, clinical or sanitising wipes can be a good way of keeping desks clean, but employees and cleaners need to be aware that wipes should only be used once. If they are used on multiple surfaces they are likely to simply spread bacteria further. Alongside a communications campaign, it might be worth considering running sessions on office hygiene to get the message across.

Any ways to measure success?

Keeping hand sanitiser in stock is going to come at a cost — but it is almost certainly less than the cost of illness at work. Look for ways to measure whether the campaign is successful and whether it is having an impact on levels of absenteeism or presenteeism in the office. Office surveys or inspections focusing on hygiene and employee awareness could be one option, as well as liaising with the HR department to capture internal data on sickness days and wellbeing.

Last reviewed 19 September 2017