Beware of Workplace Germs

business colleagues on elevator

You collect more than a paycheck at work: Every time you touch your desk, keyboard, or telephone, you pick up germs. More than 10 million bacteria are on a typical office desk -- 400 times more bacteria than found on the average toilet seat -- which means that typing an email or making a call puts you at risk for illnesses.

The reason is pretty simple. "We touch a lot of different surfaces that hundreds of others might be touching," says Kelly Reynolds PhD, a professor and environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona. "Germs spread quickly."

Even when professional cleaners do their best, germs linger. Bacteria counts are lowest at the beginning of the workday (because offices are often cleaned overnight), but it doesn't take long for germs to show up for work, too.

"As the day ramps up and more people touch more surfaces, the risk of coming in contact with bacteria goes up. Contamination levels reach their peak around lunch," Reynolds says.

In one study, researchers asked volunteers to be artificially inoculated with a benign virus to test how fast it would spread. They found that "infected" co-workers spread the virus to 50% of workplace surfaces within 4 hours of arriving at work; thanks to shared contact with those surfaces, half of their co-workers also tested positive for the viruses.

To keep germs in check and avoid illness, clean your workspace. Wipe down your desktop, monitor, keyboard, computer mouse, and phone at least once a day -- but skip soap and water and opt for something stronger.

"Bacteria and viruses survive really well on surfaces," Reynolds says. "Soap and water aren't enough to kill them; you need to use a product with a disinfectant."

Other top spots for germs include doorknobs, elevator buttons, vending machine buttons, coffeepots, microwaves, and refrigerators in the break room. It's not practical to wipe down every surface you touch, but washing your hands and using hand sanitizer can help kill the bacteria you pick up during your workday.

Research published in Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health found that handwashing killed bacteria, reducing the risk of infection with two common viruses up to 77%.

Reynolds advises washing your hands after you go to the bathroom and before you eat: "When it comes to avoiding germs, including the germs you encounter at work, the best public health intervention is still handwashing."

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By the Numbers

  • $260 billion: Annual cost of missed work and lost productivity due to illness.
  • 1 to 6: Number of workdays per year missed due to illness.
  • 92%: Phones contaminated with bacteria such as staphylococci and E. coli.
  • Up to 100%: Reduction in bacteria after cleaning a keyboard with an antibacterial wipe.

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WebMD Magazine - Feature Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on August 02, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine: "Impact of a Comprehensive Workplace Hand Hygiene Program on Employer Health Care Insurance Claims and Costs, Absenteeism, and Employee Perceptions and Practices."

Kelly Reynolds PhD, University of Arizona.

Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health: "The healthy workplace project: Reduced viral exposure in an office setting."

Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene: "Modeling of Human Viruses on Hands and Risk of Infection in an Office Workplace Using Micro-Activity Data."

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: "Degree of Bacterial Contamination of Mobile Phone and Computer Keyboard Surfaces and Efficacy of Disinfection with Chlorhexidine Digluconate and Triclosan to Its Reduction."

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