The not-so-clean workplace

I’ve never cultured my newsroom desk or keyboard to see what kinds of creepy microbes might be lurking there. But for all I know, these work surfaces could be crawling with enough pathogens to make me sick.

A recent new survey by the American Dietetic Association and the Home Food Safety program at ConAgra Foods, involving a random online sample of 2,191 adults, produced some interesting findings about germs in the office environment and workers’ behavior:

– A majority of the respondents said they ate lunch and snacked throughout the day at their desk, usually to save time and/or money. But only about one in three said they cleaned their work areas – desk, keyboard and mouse – once a week. Nearly 65 percent cleaned their work areas once a month or less.

– Nearly half of the men and 30 percent of the women admitted to rarely or never cleaning their work area.

– It gets worse: Half of the survey participants failed to wash their hands each time before eating lunch at work.

– And worse yet: Although almost all the workplaces included in the survey were equipped with a refrigerator, the refrigerator was cleaned once a week only about 25 percent of the time. Forty percent of the survey respondents either didn’t know how often the office refrigerator was cleaned or said it was cleaned rarely or never.

– Many of the respondents failed to keep perishable lunch items in the refrigerator or in a cooler; 49 percent said they sometimes left perishable food at room temperature for three hours or longer.

I wash my hands often at work and I keep a bottle of hand sanitizer next to the phone. But I confess to not cleaning the desk surface very often. My excuse reason is practical: Most of the space is covered with towering piles of stuff and it’s too much work to rearrange it.

Research findings from the University of Arizona give me pause, however. Dr. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist, collected a series of bacteria samples at offices in four cities in 2001 and found that the five most heavily contaminated sites were, in descending order: phone, desktop, water fountain handle, microwave door handle and keyboard.

In fact, the average desktop harbored 400 times more bacteria than the office toilet seat, which actually turned out to be one of the most germ-free surfaces, comparatively speaking. Although you’d expect common surfaces such as elevator buttons and photocopiers to be the germiest, Dr. Gerba’s study found that people’s personal space – phones, desks, computer keyboards and so on – was the prime culprit.

In a followup study in 2007, Dr. Gerba made another discovery: Women have three to four more times bacteria on and around their work space as men do, most likely because they so often have food and makeup in their desks. Men didn’t get off scot-free though: Their wallets contained more germs than women’s purses, and their office space also was more likely to test positive for staphylococcus bacteria.

Still want to eat off your desk? Me neither, at least not without cleaning it first with a disinfecting wipe. If good habits help reduce the risk of getting sick from germs in the home, they’re good enough to reduce the risk in the workplace too.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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