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Sick at Work? – How to Prevent the Spread of Germs in Your Office

Do you know how many germs your desk and other workplace surfaces harbor?

University of Arizona microbiologist Dr. Charles Gerba tells CNN your desk has hundreds of times more germs than the average toilet seat. And that coffee mug you use every day and only rinse out between refills is even worse.

Your desk and personal items are particularly germy because they rarely get cleaned like other workplace spaces. Office cleaning teams wipe down common areas like the kitchen and public bathrooms, usually following some sort of frequent cleaning schedule. But much of the time, they’re not allowed to enter anyone’s cubicle or private office except to change the trash.

During a typical cold and flu season, it’s essential to keep your office and desk as clean as possible to prevent illness and costly work absences. But with the current COVID-19 pandemic spreading throughout the world, it’s even more essential. Regularly cleaning and disinfecting your workspace could save someone’s life, including your own. At the very least, it can reduce the spread of germs and help prevent absenteeism or lost productivity due to illness.

Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 at Work

According to a 2020 study by PR firm Bospar, over 50% of Americans believe they will contract the coronavirus because they work in an open office layout. While that’s a very legitimate concern, there are many strategies you can use to limit your exposure to COVID-19, as well as other more common viruses and bacteria, while you’re at work.

The CDC states that COVID-19 spreads through close contact between people, typically when they’re closer than 6 feet apart.

The virus might stay alive on surfaces for several hours to several days. That means cleaning your cubicle and office regularly throughout the day is an effective way to help limit the spread of the virus.

It’s also vital you wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds with hot soapy water to prevent spreading germs. That’s especially important after you touch common surfaces like coffee pots, landline phones, elevator buttons, light switches, file drawer handles, and door handles.

And, just as important, don’t touch your face throughout the day. A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Infection Control found that, on average, we touch our faces 23 times per hour.

It’s also a good idea to wear a face mask while you’re at work, particularly if you have an open office layout. A November 2020 review in Frontiers of Science reports the COVID-19 virus may spread through aerosol droplets, which are emitted during normal breathing and can potentially linger for hours in a room. A face mask also protects you from sneezing co-workers and will help everyone else if you happen to sneeze.

A 2020 report, Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19, compiled by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services, advises people not to use work tools or equipment used by others. That means not using things like someone else’s pen, laptop, cellphone, computer keyboard, tablet, desk, or office.

If you do need to use public equipment, like the copy machine or the elevator, wash your hands thoroughly afterward, use hand sanitizer, or do both.

Cleaning vs. Disinfecting: What’s the Difference?

According to the CDC’s coronavirus resources, cleaning and disinfecting are two different things. And you need to do both to avoid spreading germs.

Cleaning refers to the removal of germs and other impurities from surfaces using soap and water or a detergent. Cleaning does not kill bacteria, but by removing them, you limit their number and help reduce the chances they will spread.

Disinfecting is the process of using chemicals to kill germs on a surface. Disinfecting doesn’t remove germs and other impurities.

The CDC recommends cleaning and then disinfecting high-touch and high-traffic areas in your work environment throughout the day. These areas include:

  • Doorknobs
  • Hard-backed chairs
  • Light switches
  • Remotes
  • Handles
  • Desks
  • Toilets
  • Faucets
  • Sinks

Best Disinfectants to Use Against COVID-19

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) compiled and regularly updates a database of disinfectants believed to be effective against the COVID-19 virus.

When purchasing a disinfecting product, check the database for its EPA registration number. You can find this number on the product’s label under “EPA Reg. No.” If the product’s number comes up in the database, that means its active ingredient is expected to be effective against COVID-19 and other viruses.

Note that various manufacturers sell products with the same active ingredients under different brand names. The EPA is updating the list regularly in response to the outbreak and adding additional chemicals expected to work against the coronavirus.

You can also mix your own bleach solution using one of the following ratios from the CDC’s coronavirus resources:

  • One-third cup of bleach to 1 gallon of water
  • Four teaspoons of bleach per 1 quart of water

One small comfort is that COVID-19 is relatively easy to destroy. The New York Times reports that COVID-19 is an enveloped virus, which means a thin lipid shell surrounds the virus. This flimsy shell easily dissolves when it comes into contact with soap and water or other disinfectants, like bleach or alcohol.

Clorox Bleach Supermarket Aisle

Cleaning & Disinfecting Your Office

There’s a right and wrong way to clean, especially when you’re focusing on removing and killing viruses and bacteria. Cody Millsap, vice president of commercial cleaning company Stratus Building Solutions, offers the following advice in an Inc. interview:

  • Don’t clean using a circular or back and forth motion. That only redistributes the germs.
  • Do use an up to down motion to wipe surfaces, and don’t go back over it in the opposite direction.
  • Don’t use reusable towels to clean that might end up somewhere else, like the breakroom.
  • Do use paper towels to prevent cross-contamination, and throw them away immediately after cleaning.

Additionally, in its coronavirus resources, the CDC offers the following guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting surfaces:

  • Do wear gloves. If you must use reusable gloves when cleaning, do not use them for any other purpose. Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting these gloves.
  • Do wash your hands immediately after cleaning, even if you wear gloves.

You must also be mindful of high-touch items that stay on your desk or that circulate between your colleagues. For example, a container of pens could harbor bacteria and viruses if colleagues or customers use them temporarily and then return them. Wash your reusable water bottle or coffee mug with hot soapy water and dry it completely at the end of each day.

Wipe down other supplies — like files, books, headsets, and staplers — with disinfecting wipes if someone uses them and returns them to your desk.

Last, be wary of areas where colleagues commonly come and go, like a break room or meeting room. While these are typically cleaned at the end of the day by cleaning staff, they can be hot spots for germ transmission during office hours.

If you must use the breakroom, bring hand sanitizer or wash your hands after touching commonly handled surfaces, such as the refrigerator door, the microwave, tables and chairs, and the vending machine. You can also wipe down these surfaces with disinfectant wipes before you use them for added safety.

Cleaning & Disinfecting Your Car

If you drive to and from work, clean the interior of your car regularly. Consumer Reports recommends cleaning and then disinfecting the following areas:

  • Steering wheel
  • Door handles
  • Shift lever
  • Touch screen
  • Wiper and turn signal
  • Armrests
  • Seat adjusters
  • Grab handles

Consumer Reports says you can use most common household cleaners in your car without damaging the interior. Using an alcohol solution that contains at least 70% alcohol is a simple and effective way to combat viruses.

Cleaning and disinfecting are especially important if you use a company vehicle for work. Before you enter the vehicle, wipe down high-touch areas, including keys, with a Clorox or Lysol disinfecting wipe, and roll down the windows as you start to drive to let in some fresh air.

Cleaning & Disinfecting Devices

Devices like cellphones, tablets, and keyboards present a particular challenge when it comes to cleaning. You can’t simply spray these tools down and wipe it up, as that can destroy the device. You also can’t use bleach or other disinfectants, as these can damage sensitive electronic surfaces.


Your keyboard is a hotbed for germs and viruses because you touch it all day. It’s also warm, which is an environment viruses love.

Today” interviewed Art O. Gnimh, head of Logitech’s keyboard division, who had the following tips for cleaning your keyboard.

  1. Disconnect your keyboard from the computer or power it off if you’re using a wireless keyboard. If you’re using a laptop, turn it off completely.
  2. Use a slightly damp microfiber cloth to gently wipe the keyboard. Don’t spray any cleaners directly onto the keyboard.
  3. To disinfect, use Lysol or Clorox wipes to gently cleanse the surface. If there’s excess moisture in the wipe, squeeze it out before wiping the keyboard.
  4. Wipe again with the microfiber cloth, and make sure it’s completely dry before powering the device back on.


According to a 2016 study conducted by research team Dscout, we pick up our cellphones an average of 76 times per day. But when was the last time you cleaned it? If you’re like many people, the thought never occurred to you. However, your cellphone is one of the dirtiest surfaces you come into contact with daily.

Our phones go with us everywhere: to work, to lunch, to the bathroom, on public transportation, and into the home kitchen, to name a few. Throughout the day, our hands touch a wide variety of surfaces, picking up bacteria and viruses, which get transferred to our phones.

We then put that phone next to our faces every time we need to make a call. Or we use it to surf the Web and then touch our eyes or mouth, both of which are open portals for these germs to get into our systems.

A 2011 study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that 1 out of 6 British phones contained fecal matter. Teenagers’ phones are even worse. A 2017 study published in the medical journal Germs found over 17,000 bacterial counts on the average phone.

Public health care workers have particularly nasty phones. A 2017 study published in the Iranian Journal of Microbiology found that 36% of participants’ phones were contaminated with Acinetobacter baumannii, and 21% were contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus (aka MRSA). Both of these bacteria can cause serious, life-threatening diseases, especially among hospital patients with weakened immune systems.

Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to clean and disinfect your phone. Susan Whittier, director of clinical microbiology at New York-Presbyterian and Columbia University Medical Center, tells Time that you need just three things to clean your phone: isopropyl alcohol, water, and a microfiber cloth.

  1. Mix an alcohol solution of 60% water and 40% rubbing alcohol. In ounces, that means you’d add 4 fluid ounces of alcohol to 6 fluid ounces of water. Note that rubbing alcohol, also called isopropyl alcohol, comes in different strengths, ranging from 50% to 91%. The CDC recommends using an alcohol strength of 70% or higher.
  2. Take your phone out of its protective case. Wet a microfiber cloth in the cleaning solution, and gently wipe down your phone’s front and back.

Another option is to use Clorox wipes, which according to Apple, are safe to use on your iPhone’s screen as well as Apple laptops and tablets. That might mean it’s safe for other devices too. However, research how to properly clean and disinfect your particular phone, as different manufacturers may have different recommendations.

Tip: If you don’t have a microfiber cloth, don’t use paper towels. They’re too abrasive for your phone screen. You should also never spray any cleaner or disinfectant directly on your phone, as it will likely damage the device.

Clorox Disinfecting Wipes Hand Pulling To Clean

Use Plants to Purify the Air

The building your office is in could also be a source of illness. Issues such as mold, asbestos, and gasses given off by carpets, paints, and office furniture contribute to sick building syndrome (SBS).

According to a 2008 study published in the Journal of Retail & Leisure Property, SBS can cause widespread productivity loss and lead to monetary loss from employee absences.

You can offset your risk of SBS by strategically placing certain air-purifying plants in your office. A landmark 1989 study conducted by NASA proved some plants purify indoor air better than others. Some of the most effective air-purifying plants include:

  • Mother-in-law’s tongue
  • Peace lily
  • English ivy
  • Bamboo palm
  • Chrysanthemum
  • Potted mums
  • Green spider plant
  • Gerbera daisies

In addition to helping clean and purify indoor air, these plants also help make your workspace feel calm and peaceful, something we all need during the day.

Final Word

It’s easy to see how your office can quickly become a breeding ground for viruses and bacteria, especially if everyone doesn’t practice good hygiene habits like hand washing.

And with the global spread of COVID-19, everyone’s attention is rightly focused on staying personal wellness and safe and healthy during the pandemic. If possible, negotiate a remote work schedule with your boss.

If that’s not possible, simple steps like wiping down frequently touched surfaces and washing your hands go a long way toward keeping you healthy and productive and help stop the spread of viruses that can sicken your colleagues or customers.

An added benefit is that these practices will help prevent spreading germs like seasonal flu, which causes millions of sick days each year. 

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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