As fears over coronavirus sweep across the country and the globe, many employees may be left wondering how they can protect themselves from illness while working in highly populated offices.
Open offices with work-spaces not separated by walls or cubicles seem to be at the forefront of people's concerns.
Wash your hands often, especially after handling shared items like coffee pots or phones.
Shared office items like coffee pots and landline phones, as well as door handles, elevator buttons, and light switches can harbor a host of germs.
To prevent getting sick, it's important to wash your hands often. The CDC recommends washing your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
Dr. Eric Cioe-Pena, director of global health at Northwell Health, said washing your hands is the most important thing you can do to protect yourself from coronavirus and other illnesses in an office.
"That is your main line of defense," he told Business Insider. "The main line of transmission is going to be touching surfaces that someone has coughed or sneezed on and then touching your face."
Keep a bottle of hand sanitizer at your desk.
If soap and water isn't easy to access at your workplace, keep a bottle of hand sanitizer handy. The CDC and Dr. Cioe-Pena recommend using one with at least 60% alcohol content to best protect yourself from germs.
"Using hand sanitizer is a quick way to disinfect your hands in between soap-and-water washes, but washing your hands does have greater efficacy in washing away droplets and viral contaminants," Dr. Cioe-Pena said. "Hand sanitizer is a superficial clean, so if you've got no dirt or no grime on your hands, it is effective at killing most things that are on your hands. However, any time you have any kind of dirt where germs could be hiding underneath, hand sanitizer isn't going to get it but soap and water will."
Sanitize your workspace.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the average desk has 800 bacteria per square inch — roughly 14 times more bacteria than an office toilet seat. In order to prevent getting sick, clean your workspace often with household spray or a disinfecting wipe.
Focus on cleaning the items you touch most often, namely your keyboard, mouse, monitor buttons, and desk phone, as well as the desk surface.
"At the beginning of the day, wipe down surfaces that you're going to touch often," Dr. Cioe-Pena said.
Avoid touching surfaces with your bare hands.
The best way to protect yourself from illnesses and infections is by limiting hand-to-surface exposure. When grabbing door handles, use a tissue or glove to avoid touching the possibly germ-covered surfaces with your bare hands.
Work in a secluded area if you can.
If you work in an open office, you can still take measures to avoid catching diseases from your desk neighbors. Finding a more secluded spot to work, like a phone booth cubicle or corner desk, can help prevent you from catching illnesses from nearby people.
"One of the ways to catch the virus is to be in close proximity to other people," Dr. Cioe-Pena said. "If you're at work and you're within six feet of someone for more than two minutes, who are showing symptoms, can definitely increase your risk."
Dr. Cioe-Pena also recommends temporarily avoiding gatherings of more than five people that aren't essential to business to best protect yourself against getting sick.
Avoid touching your face, namely your mouth, nose, and eyes.
The CDC states that in order to prevent yourself from contracting illnesses like COVID-19, the flu, or even the common cold, you should avoid touching your face at all costs.
According to a 2015 study, people touch their faces an average of 24 times an hour, and about 44% of that touching involves the eyes, nose, and mouth.
However, not touching your face may be one of the easiest ways to prevent illness at work.
"Nervous habits like biting your nails or touching your eyes can put you more at risk of catching the coronavirus [and other illnesses]," Dr. Cioe-Pena said "Things like that, that you do habitually with unclean hands, can put you at risk."
Avoid physical contact, including hugs and handshakes.
It's also important to limit physical contact with others when possible. This year, many companies are encouraging employees to abstain from handshakes and hugs while in the office in order to prevent the spread of diseases like the coronavirus and flu.
"The handshake is a tough thing because it's so ingrained in our culture," Dr. Cioe-Pena said. "Touching elbows is a safer option than a fist bump or [handshake], avoiding areas that may come in contact with your face. Even a slight nod or bow will get the job done. I think people feel awkward about not reciprocating a handshake if someone extends their hand so initiate something. It's a common-sense change in our society that we need to be mindful of."
If your office allows you to work from home, consider it.
If you're sick yourself, do not come into work under any circumstances. If your workplace allows you to work from home, choose to do so if you're feeling under the weather. Or, simply take the day off altogether to rest and recover.
As the novel coronavirus spreads across the world, many companies are getting ahead of the curve and implementing policies that are allowing employees to take time off or work from home in order to avoid getting sick or infecting others.
"The idea right now is to practice social distancing, so that if you work with someone who is sick, you're not within 6 feet of them," Dr. Cioe-Pena said. "Employers were a little slow on the uptake, but we've seen a lot of big employers make this move [to allow their employees to work from home] and see that it's a good idea. It also cuts out the commute, which is a risk if you're taking public transit where you're really packed in during the rush hour."