Sick? Stay home!

2013-02-17 10:00

Anybody with a colleague who insists on coming to work with a nasty flu bug will know that it doesn’t take long before other people in the office start reaching for the tissues.

While most people may think that a sick person’s coughs and sneezes spread their germs, new research suggests that surfaces touched by the virus’ victim spread the disease far quicker.

A new study conducted by virologists from the University of Arizona in the US has revealed that when someone who is ill comes to work, surfaces that many people in the office touch will become contaminated within four hours.

It also showed that more than half of the employees would become infected with the virus by lunchtime.

The report found that printers, photocopiers, door knobs, coffee pot handles, telephones, desktops and table tops were just some of the germ hot spots.

The study was conducted in an office at the university and involved 80 participants.

Some received droplets of pure water on their hands but one participant unknowingly received a droplet which contained artificial viruses, which mimic the behaviour of those that spread the common cold, flu and stomach bugs.

Employees were then 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% of surfaces and employees were infected with at least one of the viruses.

Gareth Lloyd-Jones, managing director of local health and sanitation company Ecowize, said he was not surprised by the research findings.

“Most people fail to adhere to simple hygiene protocols like coughing or sneezing into a tissue and sanitising their hands afterwards,” he said.

“Germs thrive in situations like that and the chances of contamination increase as the day progresses.”

Dr Lydia Molefe, a private general practitioner from Johannesburg, agreed.

“The longer a sick person remains in the office the greater the chance that he or she will cough into their hand or sneeze, go to the copier to fax or copy and the germs will remain on the machine.”

The study released two weeks ago also revealed that simple interventions, such as hand washing and the use of hand sanitiser or wipes, can dramatically reduce employees’ risk of infection.

Professors Kelly Reynolds and Charles Gerba, the study’s investigators, said although they were aware of the contamination they were shocked to discover how much of the virus was found on commonly used surfaces and how quickly other people became infected.

“We were actually quite surprised by how effectively everything spread. I didn’t expect to find as much as I did,” said Reynolds.

Gerba agreed. “Most people think it’s coughing and sneezing that spreads germs, but the number of objects you touch is incredible, especially in this push-button generation.

“The take-home message from this study is for people to stay home when illness strikes.”

Molefe agreed.

“The best thing that any sick person can do for their colleagues is to stay at home, take their medicine and return to work when they are well,” she said.

“It is no use coming to work and bringing along your viruses, which are passed on to other people, and then all of you end up getting sick.”

Gerba said that, on average, 80% of people working in an office environment in the US say they go to work sick.

“When they do, they not only spread germs to others but can cost a company about ($280) R2 380 in lost productivity a day,” he said.

A study conducted by the Adcorp recruitment company found that South Africa lost R3.9 billion in output in 2011 due to sick leave and absenteeism.

The evolution of sickness

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