Worker Wellness and Reducing the Spread of Germs

Oct. 1, 2010
Every year, the cold and flu season takes its toll on U.S. industry, sidelining workers and derailing production. If you control the spread of germs in the workplace, you might reduce the number of cases of flu suffered by your employees.

The flu, as well as other viruses, can lead to losses in workplace productivity due to absenteeism from workers who are themselves sick or those who must stay home to care for others.

Up to 20 percent of the population gets the seasonal flu annually, while more than 200,000 people are hospitalized with flu-related complications. Some 36,000 people in this country die from flu-related causes each year.

Flu seasons are unpredictable in a number of ways, including when they begin, how severe they are, how long they last and which viruses will spread. The emergence of the H1N1 influenza virus in 2009 caused the first influenza pandemic in more than 40 years, which led to more uncertainties than usual and high levels of flu activity much earlier in the year than during most regular flu seasons.

The economic consequences of a flu pandemic are daunting. A 2005 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that the impact of a flu pandemic would be $71.3 to $166.5 billion, excluding disruptions to commerce and society. (“The Economic Impact of Pandemic Influenza in the United States: Priorities for Intervention,” Martin I. Meltzer, Nancy J. Cox, and Keiji Fukuda, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta.)


The flu and other infections generally are spread by coughing, sneezing, talking near someone and by touching unsanitized hands to the face. People may become infected by touching something — such as a surface or object — with flu viruses on it and then touching their mouth or nose. Studies have shown that influenza virus can survive on surfaces and can infect a person for 2 to 8 hours after being deposited on the surface.

In addition to surface hazards, unwashed hands can pose an equal hazard in the workplace by spreading germs and other substances, such as toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Germs can be spread when people touch common surfaces, such as equipment and “hot spots” like dispensers, doorknobs and handles in heavily trafficked communal areas such as bathrooms and break rooms.


Workers who are ill, should, ideally, stay at home until they are better. Those who come to work while they are sick should take precautions to avoid spreading germs to co-workers, such as covering their noses and mouths with a tissue when coughing or sneezing — and then throwing the tissue in the trash after use. All workers should avoid touching their eyes and mouth and should keep a safe social distance from people who show symptoms of influenza-like illness. Masks that meet or exceed NIOSH N95 standards also may provide protection.

Hand washing is one of the best ways to prevent germs from spreading, so long as workers follow these simple practices:

  • Clean your hands often. Use soap and warm water and rub hands vigorously together for 15 to 20 seconds. It is the soap combined with the scrubbing action that helps dislodge and remove germs. When soap and water are not available, alcohol-based instant hand sanitizers may be used.

  • Rinse hands well to remove soap residue, then dry hands gently using a paper towel. Drying hands with a paper towel can reduce bacteria on average by up to 77 percent, while high-speed and warm-air dryers actually can increase the number of bacteria on the hands, surfaces and in the air, according to a recent study. Hand drying with disposable towels also has been found to help prevent the spread of germs.

  • Use a paper towel to turn off the water faucet to avoid recontaminating hands.

  • Set up remote hand washing stations with easy-to-use instant hand sanitizers to make it easier for line and production workers to clean their hands while on the job.


Another risk posed by unwashed hands is the transfer of toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Something as seemingly benign as a rental shop towel can present a very real safety and health hazard for industrial workers. For example, even after laundering, rental shop towels can retain traces of grease and oil or shards of metal that can be seen and felt on the skin. Additionally, they may expose users to dangerous levels of lead or other heavy metals.

When researchers from the Gradient Corp., an environmental lab, tested “freshly laundered” shop towels from 23 different industrial sites, they discovered that these “laundered” shop towels contained elevated levels of toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and antimony. These metals do not necessarily stay on the towels. They can migrate to workers' hands, and ultimately to their mouths, where they can be ingested. Lead and other heavy metals can also be carried home from the workplace via workers' skin or clothing.

Some of these risks can be avoided if workers wash their hands thoroughly after using rental shop towels and before touching their faces or eating

The industrial workplace poses challenges that differ from other work environments. Industrial workers often are on-the-go or can't leave their stations to wash up. To help reduce the risk of spreading “take-home toxins” as well as germs, it is not only important to provide portable hand washing options and hand washing stations throughout a facility, it also is essential to select the right hand cleanser for the task. In an industrial environment, performance equally is important because general purpose skin cleansers are not designed to tackle tough industrial oils, ink and grime.

Make sure to select hand cleansers designed for manufacturing environments, such as those that contain natural or polymer (plastic) bead grit, which helps dislodge dirt by mechanical action, and aloe vera to moisturize and protect the skin. Also look for products with citrus-based cleansers, rather than harsh petroleum solvents.

Other options for the industrial workplace are hand cleansers with grit that do not require water for use, or waterless hand wipes, some of which are available in portable buckets so workers can take them with them on the job. For germ prevention, industrial workplaces also may want to consider wall-mounted systems that dispense instant hand sanitizers or those on stands that can be moved around and used where the need is greatest, such as in entry areas, break rooms, etc.


Another way to help break the cycle of germ transmission is through facility maintenance, particularly in the restroom, a communal space where microorganisms can flourish. Lavatory surfaces that frequently are touched may serve as reservoirs of microbial contamination.

Facilities looking to minimize the potential spread of germs can install touchless restroom dispensing systems. These systems can help make the task of using as well as maintaining the restroom easier, more efficient and more cost-effective. Touchless systems do not need to be electronic. Mechanical no-touch towel dispensers, for example, with no levers to pull, provide the same hygienic benefits as sensor-activated dispensers.

Also make sure restrooms have an adequate supply of toilet paper, antibacterial as well as “performance” hand soap and paper towels. High-capacity systems are designed to help ensure that supplies are well-stocked, while reducing maintenance requirements, waste and cost.


While germs are common on certain surfaces in the restroom, they also can flourish throughout a manufacturing facility. To prevent the spread of flu and other germs, CDC recommends routine cleaning of commonly touched surfaces.

In the case of a flu outbreak, industrial workplaces may choose to increase surface sanitation efforts. If that happens, it is important for maintenance staff to minimize contamination of the cleaning solution and tools used for these efforts. Keep in mind that “open bucket” solutions become contaminated almost immediately during cleaning, and continued use of the solution transfers increasing numbers of microorganisms, resulting in spreading contamination rather than containing it. Another source of contamination is the cleaning cloth itself, especially if left soaking in dirty cleaning solution.

Common cleaning methods, such as using a cotton rag or cellulose-based wiper to apply disinfectants such as bleach, actually deliver less-than-ideal concentrations of disinfectants to the surface. However, a non-woven wiper designed specifically to be compatible with bleach (and used in a closed-bucket system) can keep the active bleach ingredients stable for 72 hours, allowing a much higher concentration of active ingredients to reach the surface being cleaned, according to recent studies.

According to CDC, employers can play a key role in protecting workers' health and safety, as well as in limiting the negative impact of influenza outbreaks on the individual, the community, the businesses themselves and the nation's economy. Industrial workplaces should be on the front lines in the war against the flu and other potential germs in their facilities. A combination of effective flu-prevention tools and practices will put manufacturing facilities and their occupants in a good position to avoid the brunt of the flu this season and keep workers on the job.

Marianne Santangelo is a senior customer marketing manager, manufacturing segment, for Kimberly-Clark Professional, based in Roswell, Ga. For more information about hand hygiene and reducing the spread of germs in manufacturing environments, visit


CDC has published a number of guidance documents to help different groups and facilities decrease the spread of flu:

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