The struggle against infections in the workplace

The ‘common’ cold is something with which we are all familiar with, and most adults catch between two and four of them a year. This mild, yet still unpleasant viral infection of the nose, throat, sinuses and upper airways can cause a blocked/runny nose, sneezing, a sore throat and a cough.

Flu is a much more serious and often more unpleasant infection. It is caused by a different group of viruses to those that cause ‘common’ colds, and the symptoms tend to be severe, as well as longer lasting.

Influenza (most commonly referred to as flu) is an acute viral infection of the respiratory tract, characterised by the onset of fever, chills, headache, muscle and joint pain, and fatigue whilst at the same time still causing a cough, sore throat, nasal congestion and diarrhoea.

Sometimes called the winter vomiting bug, norovirus can actually be caught at any time of the year, although weekly surveillance statistics published by Public Health England show it reaches peak levels during winter. Each year, it’s estimated that between 600,000 and one million people in the UK catch norovirus, with similar figures in other European countries.

The symptoms are extremely unpleasant – starting with nauseous feelings, and then progressing to diarrhoea and vomiting. Additional symptoms such as fever, headache or aching leg/arm muscles can also be experienced.

Thankfully, periods of illness are usually short-lived; lasting no more than two days, but in the very old or very young, symptoms can last longer and have even greater negative consequences.

How infections spread

Each day hands can be exposed to many contaminated surfaces. When people unknowingly touch their face, the germs can enter the body through the eyes, nose and mouth. Germs can also be transmitted to others by shaking hands, known as direct transmission or by handling items that others have touched, known as indirect transmission.

If, for example, an infected person does not wash their hands before handling food, they can pass the virus on to others who come into contact with that food. All three infections can be spread through contact with surfaces on which the virus has been deposited – therefore making it clear that hand hygiene is paramount in helping to prevent the spread of infections.

Modern technology is redefining the way we work. Many of us use laptops, tablets and smart phones, and because of the frequent contact with our hands and proximity to our faces, germs are easily transferred to them. In addition, it’s been reported that a typical office desk can harbour more than 6,000 bacteria per square inch.

This makes for pretty uncomfortable reading, especially when you learn that restaurants with surfaces containing more than 700 bacteria per square inch are considered unsanitary.

What prevents good hand hygiene in the workplace?
A number of factors can play a part, including:

• Hand hygiene products not situated in convenient or key locations – this can be remedied by siting dispensers at ‘critical points’ such as kitchen areas and entrances and exits to manufacturing or processing spaces

• Employees have to leave their desks to remove germs from their hands – hand sanitisers are a good alternative when there is not time to properly wash hands, or if hands are only lightly soiled. They also come in handy personal use bottles that are perfect for desktops, for field-based staff, or for use when commuting

• Lack of education within the workplace of the risk of infection spreading through not washing hands – look for reputable, specialist hand hygiene suppliers, who will be able to help you communicate the importance of hand hygiene through training and support including specially-designed posters.

Good hand hygiene can play a crucial role in helping to reduce the spread of infections in the workplace. By ensuring employees have access to the right hand hygiene products, which provide effective results with skincare benefits, employers can take a significant step towards minimising workplace absenteeism.