Germs at Work Turn Offices Into Infirmaries


Did your co-worker just sneeze without covering his mouth? Is someone hacking up a lung by the water cooler?

Employees are carrying more than heavy workloads lately — it seems in the dead of winter they're laden with germs and sharing them with co-workers.

"Coughing, slobbering, hocking up phlegm and snorting in the cube environment — it's nasty," Liz Quilty, a production coordinator in Boston, said. "We have plenty of sick days, so people should use them."

Chris Bousquet, an editor in New York City, suspects she got something worse than a cold at her office.

"I think my boss gave me the Norwalk virus," she said. "I got violently ill. He denied it, but he had it less than a week beforehand."

The two most common ways to catch what your co-worker may be suffering from are by touch or through the air, according to Dr. Ronald Geckler, head of the Infectious Disease Division at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Md.

"Secretions are going everywhere, and the respiratory droplets that spray out when one sneezes or coughs can travel a few feet from the offender," he said. "Certain size droplets you produce don't fall to ground, they float in the air for 10, 20 minutes, and if the air is stagnant they hang longer than in a room with good ventilation."

Even if someone covers their mouth, be wary of where those paws go. Phone receivers, shared office supplies or other hands could be in their grasp next, and the germs will travel.

There are a few steps to take to avoid getting sick in an office that feels more like an infirmary than a place of business. "If you see someone coughing, avoid their direct path, and if you shake someone's hand, be sure to wash yours," Dr. Tim Tobolic, a family physician in Byron Center, Mich., advised.

And behavioral changes can make a difference too. "People touch a lot of different parts of their own body during the day," Geckler said. "But (they) need to make a conscious effort not to touch their face."

Hand-washing techniques can also help keep the germs at bay. Hands should be scrubbed together with soap for at least 15 seconds under warm water. It sounds basic, but Tobolic said many people just rinse with water or wash their fingertips instead of the whole hand, which doesn't get the germ removal job done.

Many people associate cold weather with getting a cold, but the reasons behind the sickly season is closed environments, lack of ventilation and being indoors around other people more, Tobolic said.

And while most employees receive some allotment of sick days, some say their co-workers drag themselves into the office when they should stay home.

"I think so many people are so driven, or feel they'll miss out, or are afraid to miss work, that they come in even when they're sick," said Bousquet. "I've heard more than a few people say, 'Why would I want to waste my sick days on being sick?'"

Some workers try to shield themselves from the onslaught of germs by using antibacterial lotions or disinfectant towelettes, but others are skeptical about these products.

"It seems obsessive," said Quilty. "But it might make someone feel better. ... When you hear people coughing it heightens the sense of, 'Oh god, is it everywhere? On every printer I touch and Xerox machine?' It permeates everything and if you really start to think about it you can feel, 'It's all around me.'"

Despite the precautions that can be taken to avoid catching what the cougher in the next cube has, sometimes sharing more than work with co-workers is inevitable.

"If you're in an office and everyone has a cold the chance of you getting a cold is pretty good," Geckler said.

Or, as Bousquet puts it, "Sleep well, eat well, wash your hands and cross your fingers."