Catching cooties: what’s the dirtiest spot in your office?

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Do you try to elbow open the bathroom door or use a paper towel to turn the handle for fear of the infamous non-hand-washer in the office? Well, unless you’re giving the microwave and fridge the same treatment your precautions are probably a waste of effort.

In a new study by Kimberly-Clark Professional, researchers swabbed nearly 5,000 surfaces in office buildings housing about 3,000 employees. The offices included law firms, insurance companies, health care companies, call centers and manufacturing facilities.

The researchers didn’t measure germs specifically, but instead recorded levels of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which are usually high when food or other organic residues are left on surfaces. The more ATP on a surface, the more bacteria and viruses are flourishing.

An ATP reading of over 100 suggests a surface could use a scrub-down. Readings of 300 or higher are considered officially dirty and at high risk for spreading illness.

So what’s your high risk area? These six areas often had counts of 300 or more:

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


“A lot of people are aware of the risk of germs in the restroom, but areas like break rooms have not received the same degree of attention,” says study consultant Charles Gerba, professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona. “This study demonstrates that contamination can be spread throughout the workplace when office workers heat up lunch, make coffee or simply type on their keyboards.”

Areas with readings over 100 included computer mice, desk phones, coffee pots and vending machines.

It’s impossible to avoid germs entirely, but according to Brad Reynolds of Kimberly-Clark Professional’s Healthy Workplace Project, diligent washing, wiping and sanitizing can help office workers reduce their rates of cold, flu and stomach illness by up to 80%.

Here are some of Gerba’s tips for protecting yourself, and potentially reducing the spread of that flu around your staff:

  • Provide hand sanitizer at desks and in the break room and encourage staff to use it
  • Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer when you get to work, especially after riding mass transit, such as trains or buses
  • Use disinfectant wipes to clean desks at least once a day, particularly if staff eat at their desks. You should also wipe down high-touch areas in a break room.
     

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