Health Advice



5 germy office habits that can make you sick

Cynthia Sass, M.P.H., RD, on

Published in Health & Fitness

Food-related germs cause an unbelievable 48 million cases of illness (aka food poisoning) each year in the U.S., including 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. The good news is, it’s largely preventable. If you do most of your eating at the office, that’s where you’re most at risk. Here are some of the most common mistakes that lead to getting sick at work, and what you can do to avoid them.

1. Not washing your hands the right way

If you’re a “quick rinse” kind of person, you may be leaving a lot of hidden germs on your hands. Washing them correctly can slash your risk of getting sick (or getting others sick) in half. Always use warm, soapy water and lather long enough to sing two choruses of “Happy Birthday” in your head (about 20 seconds). Make sure to cover the front and back of your hands, up to your wrists, between your fingers and under your fingernails. Then dry with disposable paper towels or a new, clean towel.

2. Not cleaning the microwave

There are plenty of office microwaves that look like war zones because nobody has stepped up for cleaning duty. According to a survey by the American Dietetic Association, more than half of all employees say their office microwave is cleaned only once a month or less, which can leave dried-up, splattered sauces on the inside walls that can become breeding grounds for bacteria. Corral your co-workers and set up a schedule for keeping it pristine. And ask everyone to cover their plates with wax paper to prevent splattering, and wipe down the inside after each use, while spills are still easy to remove.

3. The freedom fridge

When looking in most office fridges, nobody knows what belongs to who or how long it’s been there. You can’t see, smell or taste the bacteria that can make you sick. To prevent swallowing germs, set up four safe-fridge rules. First, anything that goes in should be dated (leave a permanent marker on or near the fridge). Second, everything must be in a sealed container. Third, once a week, any perishable foods that haven’t been eaten should be tossed. And finally, the fridge should be cleaned weekly with warm water, vinegar and baking soda. Post a sign-up sheet and make it a two-person job. Oh, and keep the fridge’s temperature below (not at) 40°F. Temps between 40 and 140 are in the “danger zone,” where bacteria multiply like bunnies.


4. Not washing office dishes before you use them

Even if you think your co-workers are a pretty clean, conscientious bunch, you just never know. People get busy or tired and may not scrub the community dishes, glasses or silverware as carefully as you might expect. Take the ‘better safe than sorry’ approach and always re-wash everything yourself.

5. The communal sponge

When it comes to washing dishes at the office, nearly 1 in 3 people say they reach for a “community sponge.” But that damp, dingy sponge can be festering with bacteria, and simply rinsing it with warm water won’t do a darn thing. Instead, use paper towels and hot, soapy water. It’s the best way to kill those germs so a case of food poisoning won’t ruin your evening or weekend plans!

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