You might never want to touch a microwave or refrigerator door handle again in the break room without blasting it with a blowtorch and then donning gloves just in case some bacteria with impenetrable armor survived the purging. Those surfaces are among the nastiest according to a study by Kimberly Clark Professional, but there’s one that’s worse: the break room sink faucet handles. Sure, you and your co-workers wash your hands, but then you turn off the water, grabbing the same bacteria-infested handle that’s been touched by people with who knows what on their hands. It makes you want to soak your hands in bleach every 10 minutes.
In the study, researchers swabbed nearly 5,000 surfaces in office buildings housing about 3,000 employees. The offices included law firms, insurance companies, health care companies, call centers and manufacturing facilities. The swabs were analyzed with an ATP meter, a device commonly used to assess sanitary conditions in industry. It measures levels of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a molecule found in all animal, vegetable, bacteria, yeast and mold cells. High ATP levels are present in food or other organic residues left on surfaces. The more ATP found on a surface, the more likely it’s flourishing with bacteria and viruses.
An ATP reading of over 100 suggests a surface could use a scrub-down. Readings of 300 or higher are considered officially dirty and at high risk for spreading illness. Note the meter doesn’t directly measure germs, but the dirty surfaces they cling to.
The dirtiest office surfaces found to have ATP counts of 300 or higher were as follows:
- 75 percent of break room sink faucet handles
- 48 percent of microwave door handles
- 27 percent of keyboards
- 26 percent of refrigerator door handles
- 23 percent of water fountain buttons
- 21 percent of vending machine buttons
Surfaces with readings over 100 that could use disinfecting included:
- 91 percent of break room sink faucet handles
- 80 percent of microwave door handles
- 69 percent of keyboards
- 69 percent of refrigerator door handles
- 53 percent of water fountain buttons
- 51 percent of all computer mice
- 51 percent of all desk phones
- 48 percent of all coffee pots and dispensers
- 43 percent of vending machine buttons
“A lot of people are aware of the risk of germs in the restroom, but areas like break rooms have not received the same degree of attention,” study consultant Dr. Charles Gerba, professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona, said in a statement, published in Time magazine. “This study demonstrates that contamination can be spread throughout the workplace when office workers heat up lunch, make coffee or simply type on their keyboards.”
It’s impossible to avoid germs entirely, but according to Brad Reynolds of Kimberly-Clark Professional’s Healthy Workplace Project, diligent washing, wiping and sanitizing can help office workers reduce their rates of cold, flu and stomach illness by up to 80 percent.
Here are some of Gerba’s tips for protecting yourself from catching your co-workers’ coughs, sniffles or other germs:
- Keep hand sanitizer at your desk and use it immediately after every meeting or conference.
- Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer when you get to work.
- Use disinfectant wipes to clean your desk at least once a day, particularly if you eat at your desk.
- Use disinfectant wipes to sanitize high-touch areas in a break room, or use paper towels to touch them.
- Keep hand sanitizer in the break room to reinforce healthy hand hygiene behaviors.