You Make Me Sick! The Impact of Dirty Workplaces

dirty workplaces

Do you work at a workplace where you are asked to bring your own cup?

Or at one that sends you home at the slightest hint of a cold?

These practices are not just the act of a stingy boss or over benevolent one, but in fact, are reducing the spread of illness in the workplace from person to person and reducing the number of dirty workplaces.

In Australia, it has been estimated that people attending work while sick adds to the spread of disease and costs the Australian economy about $34.1 billion each year through lost productivity. The cost of absenteeism in Australia is estimated at $7 billion a year.

In this post, we share research that has been conducted in the US and UK around the impact of office health and hygiene on absenteeism.

Dirty Workplaces

A study conducted by Personal Injury Solicitors Hayward Baker into the conditions of offices, shops, factories, warehouses and building sites in the UK, found that 69% of British workers – 21 million – claim their workplace is a health hazard.

Workers claim that their colleagues are unhygienic, they are required to work on greasy floors, on ripped carpets and use filthy toilets and kitchens.

Some workers are so unhappy with conditions that they make a complaint against their employer.

Their results indicated that an estimated 35% of workers have picked up an illness from their place of work – with 18% claiming to have been struck down with food poisoning or caught a stomach bug because of dirty workplaces.

A further 39% were injured at work through slips and trips on dirty floors, for example, 20% requiring hospitalisation directly related to a work-related illness or injury, that they claim wasn’t their fault.

The more ‘severe’ accidents that followed an injury at work include dislocations and a further 6% had lost a limb or body part, a result of their injury.

Offices Officially “Dirty”

A recent US study investigated hand hygiene programmes and the effect on absenteeism and insurance claims.

In a typical week, workers spend more time at the workplace than anywhere else and they are constantly exposed to bacteria. Viruses and bacteria can survive for months on telephones and doorknobs and spread to other workers via direct or indirect contact.

Office desks harbour more than 10 million bacteria which is 400 times more germs found on a standard toilet seat.

Official testing reveals high levels of bacteria on desks, computer mice, and phones, especially in cubicles. In this study, 4,800 surfaces in office buildings were swabbed and deemed to be “officially dirty”. The highest readings were on toilet hand basin tap handles, microwave door handles, computer keyboards and refrigerator door handles.

Dirty workplaces are particularly an issue in office settings with shared desks, workspaces, eating areas and toilets.  Workers in open-plan spaces have a 62% higher incidence of absence due to illness, than those in private or shared cellular offices. 

What Can We Do About It?

Hand Hygiene

One way of combatting a dirty workplace issue is the adoption of a hand hygiene programme.

The simplest and most cost-effective strategy to combat common infections and prevent dirty workplaces is to provide hand hygiene options at the point of exposure.

Programmes like these have been shown to be one of the most effective means of reducing the transmission of germs. In year-long random controlled trials, workplace hygiene programmes that include education and the use of hand sanitiser reduced hygiene-related healthcare claims by more than 20%.  Alcohol-based hand rubs were found to be more effective than routine hand washing.

Sanitation Stations

Many organisations have implemented sanitation stations in open-plan and hot-desking environments to encourage employees to wipe down the desk, computer equipment, and phone when they have finished using them for the day.

Although this sounds like a great idea, a UK study found that less than half of employees use them.

A reason for the lack of uptake could be that employees who hot-desk can feel indifferent to their co-workers and less committed to the organisation. Therefore, cleaning up after themselves is not considered their responsibility.

Team Ownership

Creating a team environment where we look after one another is another way to encourage cleanliness and reduce the development of dirty workplaces.

Some research has suggested that creating ownership can lead to increased responsibility and to people doing the right thing. Examples of team ownership include schedules for cleaning the kitchen. However, commitment is a problem and resentment towards others who don’t complete their allotted tasks can cause additional tension.

Stay Home When You’re Sick!

While employees should be encouraged to stay home while sick, and the use of hygiene programmes can have a positive impact, the uptake of these initiatives continues to prove challenging for employers. One way forward is to include health and hygiene topics in the Safety Induction and Hazard Training regimes.

Educate About the Hazards

As part of the onboarding of new employees, business should consider presenting information about dirty workplaces and the consequences. The Tap into Safety solution has tackled topics around poor housekeeping, occupational hygiene hazards and fitness for work for a number of our clients. Why not try our free demo?


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