Keeping The Office Flu-Free

Office environments present excellent opportunities for flu transmission.

by Lee Tse Ling

Quarantine and isolation measures effectively limit the transmission of communicable diseases like the flu, and are the cornerstone of most prevention strategies. While they have a positive impact on public health, they can also have a negative impact on productivity when too many staff members stay home to see if their sniffles get worse.

However, the benefits of doing so far outweigh any loss to the bottom line, so such measures should be respected when indicated. That is, when flu-like symptoms appear, workaholic employees should not insist on remaining at work and hard-driving employers should not insist on their physical presence either.

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Employees and employers need to be enlightened of the adverse effects of their actions. They need to be reminded that A(H1N1) is highly infectious. Once an epidemic occurs at their workplace, the business as a whole will be affected badly.

How Does Flu Spread in Offices?

Two ways, in general. First, infected persons who cough/sneeze without covering their noses/mouths spray viruses into the air. These travel on air currents before dropping onto nearby surfaces. Secondly, infected persons smear virus-containing droplets from their noses/mouths on surfaces they touch directly with unwashed hands. And guess what?

* You share the air you breathe with them intimately

Central air-conditioning is a blessing in our climate, but a bit of a curse when it comes to airborne infections. If you work in an enclosed office space that is 20m long, 10m wide, and 3m tall, the total volume of air there would be 6,000 cubic metres, or litres. A normal person breathes in and out about 15-18 times a minute, with half a litre to one litre of air passing in and out of the lungs each time.

If you breathe 600ml of air in and out of your lungs 16 times a minute on average, you could theoretically pass all the air in your office through your lungs in 10 hours. Less, if you breathe hard and fast e.g. if you get excited or exert yourself.

When you factor in poor air circulation and how many colleagues share this space with you, it is easy to see you are all breathing in what everyone else is breathing out, many times over : minty-fresh breath, burps, and, of course, flu viruses.

* You share common contact points with them

Doorknobs and handles, elevator buttons, and computer keyboards are particularly well fingered. Then there are documents you pass around, newspapers you share, and that security tag you touch ten times a day, but have never washed since the day you got it (just like doctors' neckties, those tags brush against everything – clothes, tables, and bathroom countertops).

How many of your colleagues take matters into their own hands (literally) when they cough, sneeze, or visit the bathroom, without washing their hands afterwards? And then open the door to your office or tap on your keyboard? That’s how many colleagues you can catch the flu from.

More info on SWINE FLU here.

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