8 Tips for Healthy Workplaces: Healthy Workers Are Productive Workers

By Clinton Colmenares, Staples® Contributing Writer

It’s just a fact of life these days that we spend more time at work than we do at home. (Of course, for many people, their home is their workplace.) Aside from putting noses to grindstones, we also eat, congregate and sometimes even sleep in our offices.

However, experts say we often neglect to consider the effects our workplace has on our health. Hazards abound, from clutter that contributes to slips, trips and falls to bacteria lurking on doorknobs and desks. Illness isn’t cheap, either: 111 million sick days a year at a direct cost of $7 billion.

These numbers will make you consider your stock of cleaning supplies as much as your list of sales prospects.

Here are 8 tips to help you keep your workplace healthy.

1. Clean and dry spills as soon as possible.

Keep plenty of paper towels on hand to wipe up small messes. Report larger or continuous leaks to facilities management. Remember: Simple spills can cause slips. Large spills or chronic leaks can lead to mold outbreaks. Neither is something you want or need in your workplace.

2. Organize for safety.

Use desk organizers and storage systems to keep items properly stowed. “What happens when scissors are under a stack of papers and someone tries to scoop up the papers?” asks Shaun Crawford, a certified industrial hygienist and a faculty instructor in Environmental Health Sciences in the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health. That’s right: A cut or a puncture wound. These kinds of injuries are totally avoidable with more attention to neatness and organization.

3. Tell sick workers to stay home.

“You can start to shed viruses before you have symptoms — and before you’re completely well, you can still shed viruses,” explains Kelly Reynolds, associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences and director of the Environment, Exposure Science and Risk Assessment Center at the University of Arizona's Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.

Once germs are in, they work fast. In a study of how germs move through a workplace, Reynolds inoculated one employee with a harmless virus at 8 am. By noon, half of the 80 employees in the office had the same virus on their hands.

“Even if you think you can hide out in your office, you’re coming into contact with the same doorknobs, the same buttons on the copy machine,” she adds.

4. Encourage hand washing.

Employees should do it regularly. The pros recommend washing your hands a lot, especially when you get to work, before you leave the office, before you eat and after shaking hands. And dry them, too; germs glom onto wet hands more easily than onto dry ones. Using hand sanitizer can help, too.

5. Clean desks and tables.

In her study, Reynolds also noticed that germs spread even though “the employees did not have a lot of contact with one another.” The transmission came from people touching shared surfaces in common areas, such as kitchens, bathrooms and conference tables.

But it’s not just common areas. Desks, keyboards, phones and other nonporous surfaces are also prime dwellings for germs, and they're often touched by multiple people.

In addition, you might think eating lunch at their desks makes your team more productive; it also makes them more prone to illness. Taking a bite of sandwich, answering the phone, grabbing a pen, thumbing through some papers, taking another bite...before long, they’re swallowing a few million germs.

To combat this, always have disinfectant sprays and wipes handy, and encourage their use. If your employees eat at work, ask them to clean the surface first, put a barrier between their food and the surface and don’t touch anything else while eating.

6. Remove trip and fall hazards.

Proper storage and cable management systems help keep your workforce on its feet. Boxes, electrical cords and other objects that clog aisles and walkways are accidents waiting to happen. “It’s not uncommon for someone to be standing next to a bookcase with a knee-height box on the floor, lose awareness of the box and trip over it,” Crawford says.

7. Tend to minor injuries.

Even small wounds can become infected, leading to more serious problems and lost productivity. “Some of the most under-appreciated injuries are small puncture wounds that can get infected and lead to larger issues,” Crawford reports.

Do you even know where the office first aid kit is? And are the items in it up to date? (Some of that stuff expires, you know.) Even if it’s only a minor nick or cut, tend to it properly to avoid infection or follow-on injury.

8. Respect co-workers sensitivities to cologne, perfume, allergens and air fresheners.

Some of your decisions could make co-workers sick. “Some people are more reactive to a biological agent than other people,” Crawford explains. “We have to take into account individual sensitivities when we talk about work environments.”

You may love your body spray, incense or peanuts, but others may have potentially life-threatening allergies to them. It’s important to know and honor employees’ allergies and sensitivities to avoid illness and improve workplace harmony.

Use these tips to put your company on the road to a cleaner, healthier, more productive workplace.

Clinton Colmenares, an award-winning journalist in Birmingham, AL, has covered healthcare, medicine and science since 1996. Follow him on Google+.

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