Dirtiest places in the office are closer than you think

Any surface you touch has the ability to carry germs, but office door handles, keyboards, computer mice, phones, and others may be making you sick.

How many times have you looked down at your keyboard or your phone receiver and thought, “When did it get so dirty? And how long have I been using it like that?”

Or more likely you’ve opened the microwave in the break room to heat up your lunch and observed what looks like a crime scene from lunches past, only to close it back up and hope that someone else cleans it up.

With spring finally upon us, it’s natural to want to throw open a few windows, do some deep cleaning, and tidy up your workspace, but what are the dirtiest places in the office and what are the best ways to keep germs from accumulating again?

“Most of us would think bathrooms, but it’s really anything that gets touched with hands,” notes Debra Lafler, employee wellness and employee assistance program manager for the Wisconsin State Department of Health Services, and an IB blogger. “So, door handles, elevator buttons, laptops, keyboards, mice, landline phones, cellphones, copier buttons, vending machine buttons, sink handles, refrigerator handles, microwave buttons or handles, coffee pot handles, pens, desk or file drawer handles, chairs, meeting room tables, meeting room technology (keyboards, clickers, remotes), meeting room white board markers, and two that most don’t think about — their badge/ID and their keys.”

That aligns with a 2012 workplace study conducted by Kimberly-Clark Professional that found the place where U.S. workers eat and prepare their lunch topped the list of office germ “hot-spots,” with sink and microwave door handles found to be the dirtiest surfaces touched by office workers on a daily basis.

Hygienists from Kimberly-Clark Professional’s Healthy Workplace Project collected nearly 5,000 individual swabs from office buildings housing more than 3,000 employees. The participating office buildings represented a broad cross-section of office “types” including manufacturing facilities, law firms, insurance companies, health care companies, and call centers.

The swabs were analyzed with an ATP meter, a device commonly used to assess sanitary conditions in industry. It measures levels of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a molecule found in all animal, vegetable, bacteria, yeast, and mold cells. High ATP levels are present in food or other organic residues left on surfaces. The more ATP found on a surface, the more likely it’s flourishing with bacteria and viruses.

An ATP reading of over 100 suggests a surface could benefit from cleaning. Readings of 300 or higher are considered officially dirty and at high risk for spreading illness.

According to the study, which was carried out in consultation with Dr. Charles Gerba, professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona, the percentage of the office surfaces tested and found to have high levels of contamination (an ATP count of 300 or higher), includes:

  • 75 percent of break room sink faucet handles
  • 48 percent of microwave door handles
  • 27 percent of keyboards
  • 26 percent of refrigerator door handles
  • 23 percent of water fountain buttons
  • 21 percent of vending machine buttons

Surfaces with readings over 100 that could use disinfecting included:

  • 91 percent of break room sink faucet handles
  • 80 percent of microwave door handles
  • 69 percent of keyboards
  • 69 percent of refrigerator door handles
  • 53 percent of water fountain buttons
  • 51 percent of all computer mice
  • 51 percent of all desk phones
  • 48 percent of all coffee pots and dispensers
  • 43 percent of vending machine buttons

“This study demonstrates that contamination is all over the workplace and has the potential to reach people where they eat and prepare food, as well as elsewhere,” said Brad Reynolds, North American platform leader for The Healthy Workplace Project and Kimberly-Clark Professional, in a statement. “No one can avoid it entirely, but by washing, wiping, and sanitizing, employees can reduce their rates of cold, flu, and stomach illness by up to 80 percent.”

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Not as clean as we think we are

Spending as much time as we do at work, one would think we’d pay more attention to the cleanliness of our workspaces and the objects we use every day. However, even our best attempts to clean things up may not always be enough.

“I think in our society, we often think about bathrooms and kitchens as the place of germs,” explains Lafler. “Even though we know intellectually that anything we touch has germs, I think most of us think we can just wash our hands every time we go to the bathroom, or use hand sanitizer whenever we touch things, and that will take care of it. However, this doesn’t always stop the spread of germs because between the time we touch something and wash our hands or sanitize, we usually have touched other things, like our phone, keyboard, mouse, ID badge, and so on. And so even if we wash our hands, when we touch those things next, we get the same germs back that we thought we just washed off.”

To get a handle on the situation, Lafler first recommends disinfecting bathrooms and kitchens every day. “Hopefully, the company cleaning company is [already] doing this,” she notes.

“Your own desktop, laptop, keyboard, mouse, pens, drawer handles, badge ID, and keys should be wiped down one to two times a week. As for all the company building things like door handles, copier and elevator buttons, and the meeting rooms, while it would be great if the company would have the cleaning company wipe down everything every day or at least once a week, I’m not sure all companies do this. I would ask your company facilities or health and safety departments to see what their policy is on this, and what the cleaning company does. You could encourage improvements if needed. In the meantime, you could personally wipe things down in your common work areas.”

Lafler says the best advice after being cooped up all winter is to get outside as much as possible.

“This is a hot topic these days and some companies are creating outdoor work spaces to help with this. My advice though is to take your breaks and lunch outside, or even hold walking meetings instead of sitting to get outside for air, sunlight, and movement. Even if you can only get out for 5 minutes, the fresh air is not only physically healthy, but it improves mental and emotional health, as well.”

For in the office or at your cubicle, Lafler suggests bringing in a portable air purifier if your workplace allows it. Air purifiers can remove allergens, mold, dust, and germs, including cold and flu viruses. There are also plants that have air-purifying properties.

Lafler offers the following additional recommendations for cleaning up your act at work:

  • Keep a bottle of hand sanitizer at your desk, and use it anytime you come back to your desk because likely you’ve touched a handle, a button, etc.
  • Wash your hands any time you are in the bathroom or in the kitchen, and use a paper towel, if available, to open the bathroom door afterward.
  • See if the company can put a bottle of hand sanitizer and container of disinfectant wipes in every conference room, if they’re not there already.
  • See if the company can create outdoor workspaces, or at least put some picnic tables outside to use.
  • Talk to HR or the wellness coordinator (if the company has one) to see if they could do educational campaigns about the importance of cleaning, and the importance of getting outside for fresh air, sunlight and movement. Educational materials can be posted:
    • On the employee intranet;
    • In the employee e-newsletter, or if there is a wellness newsletter; and
    • On the bulletin boards. (Some free posters are available, but you can also make your own.)

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