Dirty Desks May Foster Flu Spread This Winter

Failing to clean off your desk before lunch not only raises the risk of salad dressing spilling onto your work, but it could also increase your chances of getting sick.

A new report shows that close to half of Americans don’t clean their desks before eating at them, and a third don’t wash their hands, which may foster the spread of infectious diseases like colds and flu.

Due to a shortage of the flu vaccine this year, health officials have urged the public to take measures to reduce their risk, and researchers say improving at-work hygiene and hand washing habits could have a major impact in reducing sick days.

"Desks, phones, door knobs, conference tables, fax machines and other common workplace areas can be breeding grounds for bacteria-spreading germs," says Brian Sansoni, spokesman for the Soap and Detergent Association, in a news release. "Of course, germs are spread hand-to-hand, but those hands touch a variety of surfaces we come in contact with every day."

The nonprofit cleaning industry trade group surveyed about 1,000 adults about their cleaning and hygiene habits at work and found 46 percent of Americans don’t clean their desks before lunch.

But there was a big difference in healthy office habits between men and women. The survey showed that 57 percent of women clean up their desks before eating but 57 percent of men do not.

"Common sense hand hygiene, surface cleaning and disinfection practices are valuable tools to help keep the workplace healthy — especially in the midst of cold and flu season,” says Sansoni. "We don't want to see poor hygiene habits lead to an absentee workforce."

Hand-Washing Habits Lax

Health experts say frequent and thorough hand washing with soap and water is one of the most effective ways to reduce the spread of colds and flu.

While 51 percent overall considered hand washing a top way to prevent colds and flu, more women (60 percent) thought so than men (42 percent). Both men and women listed other top cold and flu prevention tactics including healthy diet (23 percent), immunization (11 percent), and proper sleep (8 percent).

But the survey also showed that most Americans are lax when it comes to hand hygiene. For example:

—43 percent of those surveyed seldom or never wash their hands after coughing or sneezing.

—32 percent don't always wash before eating lunch.

—54 percent of respondents don't wash their hands long enough to effectively remove germs and dislodge dirt.

The hand-washing habits of women were also better than men. Forty-eight percent of women reporting washing their hands more than 10 times a day, while the most frequent hand washers of the men reported washing their hands only five to six times a day (29 percent).

“More Americans should know that your health is literally in your hands,” says Soap and Detergent Association Vice President of Education Nancy Bock. She mentions key instances when hand washing is critical.

—When preparing food

—Before meals and snacks

—After using the restroom

—After touching animals

—When hands are dirty

—When you or someone around you is ill

Researchers also say workers should wash their hands before eating lunch at their desks because many of the surfaces people touch at work — keyboards, door handles, and elevator buttons — can harbor illness-causing germs.

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: National Cleaning Survey, conducted by International Communications Research on behalf of the Soap and Detergent Association among a sample of 1,013 American adults in August 2004. News release, The Soap and Detergent Association.