Illustration of killing germs

'Tis the season for colds and flu, and facility cleaning departments are on high alert. From the common cold to severe influenza outbreaks, viral infections can quickly spread throughout the workplace, leading to lost productivity and — in some cases — lost lives.

Fortunately, good cleaning and disinfecting practices can reduce the spread of viruses by up to 90 percent in facilities, according to Charles Gerba, a microbiologist and professor at the University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona. And employees can do their part by following good hygiene practices and staying home when sick.

"The average employee is out ill three or four days a year, but he or she goes to work ill about four weeks a year, which costs the company in lost productivity," says Gerba. "So sanitation in the office is becoming more important — and we're seeing more data that shows the cost benefits of good hygiene practices."

To this end, custodial departments can reinforce good handwashing procedures, as well as coughing and sneezing etiquette by posting signage throughout the building.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, housekeeping staff post handwashing procedures and cover-your-cough signs in resident halls and restrooms during cold and flu season.

"There really is a proper way to wash our hands, and it's something we should do every day — not just during cold and flu season," says Jodi Krause, assistant director of housekeeping. "We can do a lot to stop the spread of colds and flu just by washing our hands properly and frequently."

Like Krause, Gerba supports the use of handwashing signs but admits that it's difficult to affect human behavior. To that end, easy access to hand sanitizer can have a positive impact on the fight against infections.

University of Wisconsin students and staff have year-round access to hand sanitizer stations in common-use areas, such as resident halls, dining halls, conference rooms and restrooms. Similarly, Gerba advocates the use of hand sanitizer at restroom exits and in coffee break rooms.

"Studies show that it reduces the spread of viruses, but only about a third of people will use it," he says.

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Cold And Flu Viruses Require Frequent Disinfecting