Gossiping at the water cooler? Try catching germs there. The microwave door and refrigerator handle are among the dirtiest places in a typical office, according to a new study from commercial products company Kimberly-Clark Professional. Researchers swabbed nearly 5,000 surfaces in office buildings that house about 3,000 employees, including law firms, insurance companies, call centers, and manufacturing facilities. "It's a very specific examination of what places are most problematic," says Jack Brown, a professor of molecular biosciences at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, who was not involved in the study. "It's common sense—think about where people go and what they touch."
In the study, released last week, researchers analyzed the swabs using an ATP meter, a device that assesses sanitary conditions by measuring levels of adenosine triphosphate, a molecule found in animal, vegetable, bacteria, yeast, and mold cells. High levels of ATP indicate that a surface is loaded with bacteria and viruses. An ATP reading over 100 suggests that a surface could afford to be cleaned, while readings of 300 or higher are considered officially dirty and at high risk for spreading illness.
Here's a glimpse of office surfaces with the highest ATP levels—readings of 300 or more. Surprisingly, the dirtiest surfaces weren't in the restroom, but in areas where employees prepare and eat food.
• 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
Other germ hotspots include computer mice, desk phones, and coffee pots and dispensers. Although it's impossible to dodge these during the workday, being aware of where germs are lurking is the first step to staying healthy. "You can't stop going to work. You can't avoid being where any other human being has been," Brown says. "But we're not walking around as wimps without the ability to fight germs off. We have a great capability to protect ourselves."
Try these tactics to stay healthy amidst office germs:
Wash your hands. Yes, it's common sense. But that's because it works. Wash and dry your hands when arriving at work, after coughing or sneezing, after using the restroom, and before and after eating, says Craig Roberts, a physician assistant with University Health Services at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And don't wash them for, say, three seconds—aim for at least 30, with soap.
Wipe down your space. Use disinfectant wipes to clean your desk at least once a day. (Research suggests that the average desk has 400 times more germs than a toilet seat.) In addition to desk surface, focus on the keyboard, mouse, and phone. Other spots that office management should make sure are wiped daily? Kitchen sink handles, refrigerator and microwave handles, kitchen countertops, conference room tables and phones, and water fountain buttons. Germs can live on surfaces for up to 48 hours.
Sanitize. Keep hand sanitizer at your desk and use it before and after meetings, as well as at the end of the day. But beware: "If you're using alcohol on your hands every five minutes, they're going to be dry, which can lead to skin cracks—which are entry points for germs," Brown says. "It's important to moisturize regularly, especially for the elderly, who have more damaged skin."
Be tidy. Don't leave half-eaten food on your desk or in your drawers. Even if it looks OK—no fungus or mold—it's still attracting viruses and bacteria.
Stay home when necessary. You can't control someone sneezing in your face or coughing on you during a meeting. But do your part and stay home when you're under the weather and potentially contagious.
Keep your hands in check. Don't touch your face or mouth, chew on your pencil, stick a paper clip in your mouth, or lick your thumb to turn a page. "Keep your hands away from your face—it's a habit we have to develop," Brown says. "And it will greatly reduce your risk of getting sick."