The role of surface and hand hygiene in keeping your office safe

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the challenges of communal workspaces in the context of the transmission of infectious diseases. Co-workers often spend long period of time in close proximity, usually with limited access to hand and surface hygiene materials. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was convincing evidence that we needed to do more to keep communal workspaces free from transmissible infectious diseases. Even more so now given the reports of COVID-19 outbreaks in communal workplaces! This blog provides an overview of the evidence that hand and surface hygiene interventions can help to improve office workers safe from transmissible infectious diseases.

Contaminated hands and surfaces can spread infectious diseases (including the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19) in home and workplace settings. I’m sure you have experienced this yourself – the person sitting next to you comes to work with a cold, and the next thing you know, you’re reaching for the tissues! Several studies have shown that improving hygiene in communal offices reduced the risk of spreading transmissible diseases. Some of these studies have used bacteriophage markers. These small micro-organisms are viruses that infect bacteria but are harmless to humans, and can be used to model the spread of viruses.

One study showed that a surface and hand hygiene intervention reduced the level of bacteriophage contamination of surfaces and staff hands in a shared office by 85%. A followup study used mathematical modelling to translate this reduction in bacteriophage contamination to a projected reduction in infection transmission risk. This study concluded that surface disinfection also resulted in an infection risk reduction of 15% for rotavirus, 16% for rhinovirus, and 33% for influenza, and that surface and hand hygiene combined resulted in an infection risk reduction of 59% for rotavirus, 61% for rhinovirus, and 88% for influenza.

We know that workplace exposure is a significant risk for COVID-19, hence the work at home order in the UK and elsewhere in the world to help manage the pandemic. We also know that staff perceptions of safety are a vital part of reopening communal offices. Some Canadian research shows that employers need to take additional steps to ensure that staff feel safe enough to come back into communal offices. A key part of providing a safe office for workers is to ensure that hand and surface hygiene products are made available throughout the office space, where they are accessible and can be used conveniently. The use of alcohol gel and disinfectant wipes are the most effective way to achieve this. Another important factor is to ensure that office workers who are ill do not come to work (you’d be amazed how often it happens)!

Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted important questions about ensure safe communal offices, and more of a focus on providing the facilities for hand and surface hygiene are a vital part of getting this right.

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