What Evil Lies Deep in the Heart of Your Office? Germs, of Course!

Bacteria left on hands after using a cell phone. Source: University of Manchester

Yesterday we looked at why people should wash their hands frequently and the consequences when they don’t. Today, we hit the average office, which can be a virtual petri dish for studies in many ways. But for today, we’ll worry about the literal meaning of a petri dish as a place to grown germs, bacteria and viruses.

The germiest place in your office is probably in the break room, says a study from Kimberly-Clark Professional, a company that produces paper products and advises companies on workplace hygiene. The study team swabbed roughly 4,800 surfaces in workplaces ranging from law offices to manufacturing plants, and identified six spots that you should probably avoid—or at least wash your hands after touching. (Read more ways to eliminate germs from your life.)

Source: Google Images

Who cares about office germs? You should, says Chuck Gerba, Ph.D., a virologist and parasitologist at the University of Arizona. “We found parainfluenza virus, which is a little worse than the common cold, on about one-third of the surfaces we studied in offices around the country,” Gerba warns, citing his team’s past research.

The 6 dirtiest places in your office for germs (according to Men’s Health):

  1. Breakroom sink faucet handles

    Breakroom sinks are … well … gross. The Kimberly-Clark study found that 75 percent of all breakroom faucet handles were considered high-risk for spreading illness and that a whopping 91 percent should be disinfected. You’d probably be wise to use a paper towel to turn the handles on and off. At bare minimum, use a hand sanitizer after using the sink.

  2. Source: Google Images (Surprisingly not from a college dorm room)

    Microwave door handles

    Even in a smaller company, the microwave in the lunchroom can get used 30 times a day, from warming that morning muffin to nuking someone’s lunch. Microwaves hide a combination of meat and vegetable particles, creating a perfect nest for bacteria. Germs need warmth, food and moisture to multiply and have you ever taken a look at the top of the inside of a microwave that hasn’t been cleaned for a while? Yum! Fun Fact: Contrary to popular belief, microwaves don’t kill bacteria, heat does.

  3. Keyboard and mouse

    Because your hands are on both of these for hours a day, they are both packed with dead skin cells, food particles and dust. If you don’t keep them and your hands clean, even bacteria that only survives for a few hours on hard surfaces will keep getting reapplied every day you use them. A study found keyboards have 3,295 bacteria per square inch, while a mouse has 1,676. A typical toilet seat only has a fraction of that … about 50 per square inch.

  4. This is a picture of an actual drinking fountain that is used by people. I could be in the middle of the Sahara and think twice about using this gross thing.

    Drinking fountain buttons or handles

    Nothing like dirty hands, moisture and spit to get the germs bubbling up, eh? A study of drinking fountains in the Colorado State Capitol, the Denver public library and a Denver bus terminal found that they were common sources of rotavirus (a common cause of diarrhea) contamination and influenza A. Your best bet is to let the water run for about five seconds before taking a drink and then washing your hands after using it. Or, spritz some hand sanitizer on your now-germy hands.

  5. Vending machine buttons

    Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen the vending machine guy wipe down the front of the machine with an antiseptic wipe after filling it up. Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

  6. Refrigerator door handles

    Home to leaking plastic food bowls, take-out containers, moldy yogurts and furry sandwiches, bacteria thrive in refrigerators. Honestly, an office fridge should be cleaned out and wiped down with a strong antibacterial cleaner inside and out every two days. Or, once a week at minimum. The average fridge contains about 7,850 bacteria colony-forming units per square inch.

And, a few more nasty places in the office for germs (according to the author and anyone with a lick of common sense):

  1. Door handles

    CBS News recently did a test where a non-dangerous tracer virus was placed on a single doorknob in an average office. The tracer virus mimicked the common norovirus in contagiousness and resistance to antiseptics. After four hours, 60 percent of office surfaces, like doorknobs, light switches, phones, computers, and work areas, showed contamination. So watch those doorknobs, OK? Each year, norovirus causes an estimated 19 to 21 million illnesses and contributes to 56,000 to 71,000 hospitalizations and up to 800 deaths. Touching surfaces or objects contaminated with norovirus, and then touching your mouth, is a common source of infection. Luckily, Gerba says that washing your hands properly and using disinfecting wipes effective against norovirus and flu, and can reduce virus spread by 80 to 99 percent.

  1. Source: Purell Inc.

    Handrails on escalators or in stairwells

    Gerba’s staff have found food, E. coli, urine, mucus, feces, and blood on escalator handrails. And where there is mucus, you’ll probably find cold and flu viruses. There is almost always respiratory flora on handrails, which makes sense because people cough into their hands, then touch the rails. Avoid touching handrails altogether unless you absolutely have to—in which case, give yourself a generous squirt of hand sanitizer afterward. Talk to building maintenance to put hand sanitizer dispensers at the tops and bottoms of every escalator. Or, convenient to stairwell doors. If you feel that request is above your pay grade, have someone from upper management request it. After you remind the boss how many sick days employees take every winter, of course!

  2. Non-automatic soap dispensers in restrooms

    Gerba’s study found that a quarter of all office soap dispensers are contaminated with fecal bacteria. Luckily, if you touch it to get soap out, but then scrub your hands and nails for 20 seconds or more before rinsing it off with warm water, you’ll be fine. Then again, in our last blog, we discovered how bad most people are at washing their hands, so they leave themselves very vulnerable to infection.

  3. Source: Google Images

    Your desk

    Duh … the place you spend most of your time. The surface of your desk is home to about 10 million germs at any one time. It’s got 400 times more germs than that infamous toilet seat. Eating at your desk is a bad idea as germs will love hitching a ride on that apple you just set down.  To keep your desk clean, wipe it down completely with an antibacterial wipe or a vinegar-based solution. Do it weekly to be safe. Honestly, it shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes to do. And, it could save you untold amounts of time on sick leave or running back and forth to the restroom.

Tomorrow, our spooky pre-Halloween germy fright fest concludes with more advice for keeping yourself healthy. Plus, the answers for how to politely confront a co-worker that NEVER washes their hands after going to the bathroom. Hint: Don’t eat whatever they bring to food day! I’m just sayin’ …

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