“Dr. Germ” dishes on a new study about bacteria at work
You’ve read the recent headlines about how drinking coffee is good for your health. But before you get up from your desk to refill your cup, there’s something you should know: your office’s coffee break room is a breeding ground for bacteria. That’s according to a new study from the Kimberly-Clark Professional Healthy Workplace Project, which tested contamination levels in buildings housing more than 3,000 employees. We asked “Dr. Germ”—a.k.a. Charles Gerba, a professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona and one of the study’s designers—how to stay healthy at work.
Spry: Were you surprised to find that the coffee break room harbored more germs than the restroom?
Dr. Charles Gerba: You know, the restroom is typically the cleanest place in any facility I see. The janitorial staff does a good job keeping it clean, and people tend to clean up after themselves. But the break room is a public area and there’s no ownership—everybody thinks the other person will clean it up. People go into that room all the time and prep coffee and food, but it’s not cleaned very often. It’s like an unregulated restaurant.
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Spry: How can office workers avoid picking up those germs?
CG: Regular hand washing is important, but I’d also use hand sanitizer when you come back from the break room or other common areas like a conference room. Also, it wouldn’t hurt if someone was designated responsible for wiping down the break room once a day. We found the first place that gets really germy are the faucets and microwave door handles.
Spry: What are some other germ hotspots in the office?
CG: The worst thing is the telephone. Nobody wipes it down. The computer keyboard and computer mouse also have a lot of bacteria. If you don’t share a desk area, it’s not as big a deal because you’re not spreading the germs. But a lot of people eat at their desks, so you should disinfect it.
Spry: One of the most interesting things about the study is that, despite the fact we tend to think of men as messier, women’s desks tended to have more bacteria. Why is that?
CG: It’s probably because women’s desks’ have more knickknacks and other tokens on them. Women also tend to store more food in their desks, and it’s the healthier foods like apples and oranges that attract mold. Guys might put a candy bar in their desk, but that will keep longer. I’ll tell you, if there’s ever a nationwide food shortage, the first place I’m looking is a woman’s desk!
Spry: Were there any interesting differences in which types of industries or regions had dirtier offices?
CG: The germiest desks are schoolteachers’, obviously because kids track so many germs. The cleanest desks belong to lawyers. As for regions, the most germs were in offices in New York. I think that’s because the weather is lousy more often. Here on the West Coast, we eat outside a lot because it’s sunny.
Spry: All the more reason to get away from your desk! Do you think this problem is getting worse because we’re working more and not staying home when we’re sick?
CG: I think it is. People are working longer hours, and “presenteeism” is an issue. It actually costs a company more if you come to work when you’re sick, because you’re spreading germs and you’re not as productive. We find cold viruses in the office more than influenza, I think because when you get a cold you’re not debilitated enough to stay home. But then you come to work, you have a cup of coffee, contaminate the break room and within a couple hours it’s all over the building.
Spry: I think consumers sometimes feel confused about when to use antibacterial products. Is there an issue with overuse?
CG: You don’t develop resistance to antibacterial products. That issue is with antibiotics. And you reduce your risk of getting those other diseases—the ones you might take antibiotics for—by sanitizing. There was a study of daycare centers that found there were fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria in centers that used antibacterial products. If you properly use hand sanitizers, you can cut the number of bugs that spread. If you’re worried about overuse, you don’t have to disinfect every area. Just target the ones that really harbor bacteria.
Spry: We’ve talked about office hotspots, but what are some at home?
CG: Number one is the sponge or dishrag in the kitchen. And other areas in the kitchen, like the sink and cutting board. There is more E. coli and bacteria in sponges than in your toilet. If I were an alien microbiologist, I would think your kitchen was your bathroom! Again, bathrooms are pretty clean because people tend to use disinfectant there.
Spry: So, how do you maintain a clean kitchen?
CG: Sanitize your cutting board frequently, and microwave your sponges for 30 seconds to kill the bugs. You can clean up with paper towels in some areas, but just be sure you’re not spreading the germs around. I think the best thing is to make sure you’re targeting hotspots with a disinfectant cleaner or wipes, and keep some hand sanitizer in the kitchen, too.