How Dirty is Your Office?

Six tips for Mr. Cleaning your way to an immaculate office space.

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When many of us think of public filth, stained toilet seats and grimy cab door handles race to mind. The faucets and microwave door handles found in a workplace common room rarely do. But recent research by paper product and cleaning solutions producer Kimberly-Clark Professional suggests they should.

From dingy sink faucet handles to fetid vending machine buttons, workers encounter unsanitary office spaces every day. Kimberly-Clark's hygienists collected close to 5,000 swabs from manufacturing facilities, law firms, insurance companies, healthcare companies, and call centers that house more than 3,000 workers. Six "hot spots" were considered the most contaminated, featuring Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) counts of 300 or higher. ATP is a molecule present in all living organisms, including bacteria, yeast, mold, and animal and vegetable materials. The presence of ATP on an office surface can indicate a high level of contamination by one or all of these sources. Objects with an ATP level of 300 or more contain a relatively high risk for sickness transmission, while those with a reading between 100 and 300 contain a moderate risk for illness. Kimberly-Clark's study found that approximately 75 percent of break-room sink handles contained an ATP level of 300 or greater. Microwave door handles nabbed the second spot, with 48 percent of the surfaces swabbed containing an ATP count of at least 300. Runners-up included keyboards (27 percent), refrigerator door handles (26 percent), water fountain buttons (23 percent), and vending machine buttons (21 percent).

So what's the best way to spruce up your dirty work space? Here are six tips:

1. Repeatedly wash your hands. Routine hand washing is a straightforward and simple way to remove dirt, debris, and other contaminations, says Dr. Kelly Arehart, a program leader at Kimberly-Clark Professional who helped design the study. "So, the more frequently you wash your hands, the more times you are actually able to break the chain of transmission of something," she says. "If you don't wash your hands at all during the day, everything you touch potentially gets transferred to something else." Arehart recommends washing your hands at key points and times, including after you come into the office (either from home or a lunch break), prior to eating, after you've gone to the bathroom, and following a meeting in which you've shaken several hands or have been in contact with many people. That way, you won't transfer residue from a handshake or the gasoline pump onto the office vending machine.

When washing your hands, remember to do so rigorously, says David Herman, chief of the section of infectious diseases at University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro. "You see people go and wash their hands for two seconds. That's really not doing anything," he says. "You have to wash with soap and water, suds-it up, and use friction for a good 15 seconds."

If you can't get to the faucet, an alcohol-based hand gel will do the trick. Applying the gel prior to touching a keyboard can reduce the germs and bacteria on your office supplies, says Kathy Hill, a registered nurse and the infection control coordinator for Princeton HealthCare System. "The alcohol-based solutions are effective for killing the majority of germs, bacteria, and viruses that you would carry on your hands," she says.

2. Sanitize your workspace. Sanitizing office surfaces with disinfectant can be another way to interrupt the chain of transmission, says Arehart. She advises employees to wipe key, germ-harboring office spaces they use each day, whether they're in a common area or at their personal desk. "[Make] disinfecting wipes available in break rooms or even at your desk to wipe down say your keyboard and your phone and your mouse on a semi-regular basis. Once a day is good, maybe twice a day is better," she says.

3. Place sanitizers where colleagues can see them. The simple act of moving a bottle of hand gel or a tube of disinfectant wipes from a hidden corner of the office kitchen cabinet to the center of a break room table can contribute to a more hygienic workplace. The more available these cleaning agents are, Herman says, the more others will use them. "If people have to go look for them, they're not going to use them," he says. "If there's just a bottle of sanitizer there [in full view], people will see it and use it."