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."
4. Appoint a sanitation ambassador. No, the workplace isn't a battlefield. Asking a supervisor or co-worker to implement a regimented cleaning schedule for your office might seem overly militaristic, but Herman says it can really prove beneficial in the long run. According to him, employees usually wash their dishes and wipe down their break table after they eat, but they rarely think about all the other places they touch—like the water fountain or coffee machine. An enforced cleaning schedule can make employees more mindful of bad hygiene habits. "For instance, things like the sink handles, the microwave handles, and the keyboards need to be wiped down with disinfecting wipes," he says. "There should be a schedule that says this should be done at least once or maybe twice a day—perhaps at the beginning and at the end. And it should be somebody's assignment to make sure it actually gets done."
5. Eat away from your desk. Whether you decide to picnic on an outside bench or dine in the office break room, eating away from your desk can significantly reduce the amount of germs that populate the crevices of your keyboard. If you must work through lunch, try disinfecting your keyboard and other areas of your desk soon after you finish eating. Those bread crumbs and bits of lettuce that fall onto your keyboard tray might seem insignificant, but they can really build up, eventually morphing into dirt and grime. Besides, who knows what critters lurk under your desk in the wee hours of the night?
6. Don't go to work if you're sick. Feel a scratchy throat coming on? Temperature running a little higher than usual? These could be early signs of a common cold or worse. Consider working from home that day or not working at all. Herman says employers should be sympathetic to employees who opt to stay out of the office when feeling under the weather. "Instead of being upset with the worker for not coming in because they're sick, they should probably be more upset if they come to work sick and make five other co-workers sick," he says. "There are probably going to be more absentees from that than just the one person staying out and keeping the workplace healthy." While coming to work ill might seem like a viable option (especially if you have a major deadline looming), doing so could lower the productivity of your peers.