I love writing about food and nutrition, but microbiology and food safety are also a part of my training as a registered dietitian, and I love talking germs! While ‘food-borne illness’ may not be the sexiest topic, it’s an extremely important one. Food-related germs cause an unbelievable 76 million cases of illness each year in the US, including 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. The good news is it’s largely preventable. If you’re like a lot of my clients you may do most of your eating at the office, which means 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:
5 Office Habits That Can Make You Sick
Not Washing Your Hands the Right Way
If you’re a 'quick rinse' kind of gal 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, always, 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 (not the dirty one in the office kitchen other people have been using to wipe their hands or dry dishes). Those few extra steps are worth the healthy payoff.
Not Cleaning the Microwave
I’ve seen some crusty office microwaves that look like war zones because nobody stepped up for cleaning duty. According to a survey by the American Dietetic Association, more than half of all employees say the microwave in their office kitchen 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. So as gross as it may be, corral your co-workers into throwing a germ-busting cleaning party, then set up a schedule for keeping it pristine (like a sign-up sheet that rotates the duties once or twice a week). And ask everyone to pinky swear 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.
The Freedom Fridge
Most office fridges are willy nilly – nobody knows what belongs to who or how long it’s been there. And that is a recipe for disaster. You can’t see, smell, or taste the bacteria that can make you sick, so a sniff test or ‘looks OK to me’ nod won’t prevent you from swallowing a mouthful of germs. The fix: set up four safe-fridge rules. First, anything that goes in should be dated with a sharpie. Second, everything must be in a sealed container (i.e. Rubbermaid or Ziploc bag – no “loose,” leaky foods). Third, once a week, any perishable foods that haven’t been eaten should be tossed. And finally, the fridge should also be cleaned once a week, which means everything in it comes out and the inside gets a warm water, vinegar and baking soda rubdown. Post a sign-up sheet and make it a two person job. It’s a great way to catch up with a co-worker while doing something super productive. Oh, and make sure the fridge’s temperature is below (not at) 40°F. Temps between 40 and 140 (yup, even the low 41) are in the “danger zone,” the temperatures at which bacteria multiply like bunnies.
Not Washing Office Dishes Before You Use Them
I once had an impromptu meeting with a co-worker in the office kitchen. While we were talking he grabbed a mug from the cabinet, filled it with hot water, then gasped as he was about to toss in a tea bag. His mug was filled with cereal remnants – apparently whoever used it last just gave it a quick rinse before putting it back (I know, disgusting, right?). Lesson: 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.
The Communal Sponge
OK, so when it comes to washing dishes at the office, nearly one in three 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 little buggers so a case of food poisoning won’t ruin your evening or weekend plans!
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.