If you think the restroom is the place you are most likely to pick up germs at the office, perhaps you should think again, because new findings from the US suggest the dirtiest places in the office are in break rooms and kitchens, with sink and microwave door handles topping the list of germ “hot spots”.

For the research, which forms part of the company’s Healthy Workplace Project, Kimberly-Clark Professional hygienists collected nearly 5,000 swabs from office buildings housing more than 3,000 workers employed in a cross-section of industries. These included law firms, manufacturers, healthcare firms and call centers.

Microbiologist Dr Charles Gerba, a professor of soil, water and environmental science at the University of Arizona, acted as consultant on the study. He told the press:

“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.”

The researchers analyzed the samples using a Hygiena SystemSURE IITM ATP Meter, a device commonly used to assess sanitary conditions in industry.

The device assesses the level of contamination by measuring the amount of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) present. ATP is the universal energy molecule found in all animal, plant, bacteria, yeast and mold cells. Large amounts are present in food and organic residues, which when left on a surface can harbor and grow bacteria.

Note therefore, that measuring ATP does not measure the presence of germs directly, but the type of environment they favor.

An ATP count of 300 or more means the surface has a high level of contamination and there is a high risk of illness transmission. When they analyzed the samples, the researchers found ATP counts of 300 and higher on:

  • 75% of break room sink faucet (tap) handles,
  • 48% of microwave door handles,
  • 27% of keyboards,
  • 26% of refrigerator door handles,
  • 23% of water fountain buttons, and
  • 21% of vending machine buttons.

The samples also showed that half of all computer mice and desk phones had ATP counts over 100, which the researchers suggest means while workers seem to be keeping their personal spaces reasonably clean, there is not a sufficiently high awareness of the need for good hand and surface hygiene in the office.

Gerba said:

“People are aware of the risk of germs in the restroom, but areas like break rooms have not received the same degree of attention.”

Even if firms use contract cleaners to disinfect commonly used areas every day, they still need to educate their workers and give them the tools and facilities to reduce the spread of germs, say Kimberly-Clark.

Simple solutions include making sure there is an ample supply of sanitizing wipes in kitchens, and easy access to hand sanitizers, underpinned by education in hand and surface hygiene.

Brad Reynolds is the North American Platform Leader on Kimberly-Clark Professional’s Healthy Workplace Project. He said:

“No one can avoid it entirely, but by washing, wiping and sanitizing, employees can reduce their rates of cold, flu and stomach illness by up to 80%.”

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD