Study Reveals Hand Washing in the Workplace May Reduce Odds of Getting Sick

As flu season begins to hit its peak, people need to be more vigilant regarding their hygiene habits to prevent getting the flu, especially in the workplace.  By doing something as simple as frequently washing your hands, the results of a recent study suggest you may reduce your odds by nearly half.

Three Kent State University faculty members conducted a study of public university employees and their hand hygiene habits and found that those who reported they washed their hands or used hand sanitizer on a regular basis had a 45 percent reduced odds of reporting illness during the prior 30 days.

Maggie Stedman-Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor of environmental health sciences in the College of Public Health; Cathy DuBois, Ph.D., associate dean of the College of Business Administration; and Scott Grey, lecturer of epidemiology and biostatistics in the College of Public Health, conducted the study between March 7 and April 2 of the 2012 flu season.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a three-tier approach to reducing influenza in the workplace: offer vaccine campaigns, have workers practice good hand hygiene and cough etiquette, and have workers recognize when they are sick with the flu and stay home,” Stedman-Smith says. “In the event of a pandemic, where a new strain of influenza emerges for which there is no vaccine available, hand hygiene would become a major non-pharmaceutical defense to slow the spread of the disease until a vaccine is developed.” 

The Kent State faculty members also conducted a similar study previously at a bank, wanting to gain a better understanding of the relationship between hand-hygiene behavior and sickness from infectious disease. They decided to look at people who work in offices because office employees work closely together and tend to share pens, pencils and other supplies, such as the copy machine.

“Everyone uses the copy machine,” DuBois says. “Everyone’s touching those buttons, trays, covers … but who’s washing their hands before use or after?”

The study revealed that participants showed lower hand-hygiene behaviors after using shared pens, using shared keyboards, picking things up off the floor, handling money and after touching public surfaces, such as elevator buttons, doorknobs and handrails.

“People don’t normally think of public surfaces as being contaminated,” Stedman-Smith says. “Then they rub their eyes or touch their mouth creating a pathway for contaminants.”

Grey says people don’t realize how much they do this. 

“On average, most people rub their hands over their eyes, mouth or nose about three times an hour and aren’t even aware of it,” Grey says. “We all do it.”

Stedman-Smith says getting sick can have a number of cost implications for organizations, including absenteeism, direct health care services and rising insurance premiums.

“Other researchers have found that in the U.S., annual costs have been estimated for seasonal influenza at $87.1 billion and for the common cold at $40 billion,” Stedman-Smith says. “More people get the common cold, some several times throughout the season, but the costs for influenza are higher.”

All three faculty members say it is important for organizations to implement hand-hygiene programs. 

“Hand hygiene will become an important initial defense to slow the spread of disease if a pandemic occurs,” Stedman-Smith says. “The time to establish a program is now, not after a pandemic begins.”

The study and results were published online ahead of print in the Journal of Health Psychology.