Dr. Crutchfield, it seems like everyone at work is sick. What can I do to protect myself from getting sick at work?
Here are some tips on protecting your health in the workplace in spite of all the germs that may be lurking there.
Tip 1: Wash your hands.
As you entered your office, you probably touched one of many common surfaces just teeming with germs. These common surfaces include elevator buttons, escalator railings, and door handles. Whenever possible after such contact, wash your hands for 15 seconds with warm, very soapy water.
I was at a professional sporting event this weekend and the men’s bathroom was extremely full. I counted 30+ people. I paid very close attention, and half the people did not wash their hands.
The ones who did attempt to wash their hands did so in such a poor manner that they really only wasted their time. Many just splashed or rapidly rinsed their hands under the water for less than five seconds. No soap. It was almost like a theatrical performance or a gesture of washing hands so as not to look bad in front of the other bathroom patrons. They did not engage in a significant, worthwhile, useful hand-washing event.
Remember, you should engage in at least 13-30 seconds of hand washing with warm, soapy water. True story: When I did wash my hands, I did it properly, and the man behind me commented, “Dude, you’re washing your hands like you’re a doctor!” Wow, did that bring a smile to my face.
Also, be sure to keep a bottle of hand sanitizer handy. Make sure it contains at least 60 percent alcohol. It can be almost as effective as washing your hands with warm, soapy water.
When it comes to your desk, the area is mainly contaminated with your own germs, so they are unlikely to make you sick unless you brought germs in with you (as from doorknobs, elevator buttons) and did not clean your hands.
Also if you have other people who may work in your personal work area, like an IT person working on your computer, then you should clean your area. This is best done with commercially available disinfectant wipes. Keep these handy and use daily or whenever someone else works in your space or uses your computer.
Tip 2: Try not to touch your face.
This is much easier said than done, but with practice and concentration, you can minimize or decrease how much you touch your face. Studies have shown that most people touch their face 60-100 times per day, and some people even much more.
Your hands carry germs, and they can enter your body through your mouth, eyes and nose. Minimizing the number of times you touch your face will minimize how often you get sick.
Tip 3: Keep your distance.
Maintain a safe distance from your co-workers. You can’t control if your co-workers arrive sick, but you can control the distance between you. Most germs, including the flu virus, are unlikely to spread beyond three feet.
For good health, be sure to stay three feet away from co-workers, especially anyone who is sick. Wearing a mask may seem safe, but in most work environments it is not practical.
Tip 4: Sneeze into your elbow.
In the old days, we were taught that when sneezing we should do so into our hands to prevent propelling germs into an aerosolized cloud that could contaminate those around us. Unfortunately, our hands subsequently touch many surfaces like telephones, coffee pot handles, refrigerator door handles, doorknobs, vending machine buttons, etc.
Sneezing or coughing into our hands just allowed germs to spread differently, not to mention transmission by shaking hands. Coughs and sneezes should be done into one’s elbow or a tissue.
Tip 5: Get vaccinated.
Vaccination is one of the best things that you can do for your good health. It protects you and also those around you, including people who can’t get vaccinated, like infants or those with weakened immune systems.
Sure, there are all kinds of cold medicines that can make you feel better if you are sick, but the best strategy is to prevent getting sick in the first place. Eat a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables that will help boost your immune system — and get vaccinated.
Tip 6: If you are sick, stay home.
You will recover faster at home and not spread your illness to your co-workers. The rule of thumb is that if you have a fever, do not go to work. If you are ill but not feverish and can work, this is the one time to wear a mask and keep your distance from coworkers.
Remember, you can’t completely eliminate getting sick at work, but you can do many things to minimize your risk of getting sick that will protect both you and your coworkers.
Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He received his M.D. and Master’s Degree in Molecular Biology and Genomics from the Mayo Clinic. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the United States by Black Enterprise magazine. Dr. Crutchfield was recognized by Minnesota Medicine as one of the 100 Most Influential Healthcare Leaders in Minnesota. He is the team dermatologist for the Minnesota Twins, Vikings, Timberwolves, Wild and Lynx. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of both the American and National Medical Associations, and president of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians.