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Germs may be lurking in your workplace reports Kimberly-Clark

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
germs, workplace, ATP, Kimberly-Clark, infection, illness

ROSWELL, GA - According to a new study by Kimberly-Clark hygienists, your office kitchen and/or break room may be a haven for germs. On May 23, researchers at Kimberly-Clark Professional reported the results of their comprehensive study of germs in the workplace.

Although many would deem restrooms as the most germ infested location in the office, the researchers found that the place where US workers eat and prepare their lunch topped the list of office germ “hot-spots.” In those locations, sinks and microwave door handles were found to be the dirtiest surfaces touched by office workers on a daily basis.

Hygienists swabbed the objects to measure levels of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is present in all animal, vegetable, bacteria, yeast and mold cells. Kimberly-Clark notes that the detection of ATP indicates the presence of contamination by any of these sources. Everyday objects with an ATP reading of 300 or higher are considered to have a high risk for illness transmission. Objects with an ATP reading between 100 and 300 suggest room for improvement in the cleanliness level. After taking the swabs, the hygienists used a Hygiena SystemSURE II™ ATP Meter to obtain the ATP readings. Consultation was obtained with Dr. Charles Gerba, Professor of Microbiology at the University of Arizona.

The office areas that were found to have high levels of contamination (an ATP count of 300 or higher) included:
75% of break room sink faucet handles
48% of microwave door handles
27% of keyboards
26% of refrigerator door handles
23% of water fountain buttons
21% of vending machine buttons

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In addition to the above findings, half of all computer mice and desk phones were found to have ATP levels above 100; this suggested that while office workers appear to be taking more responsibility for the cleanliness of their personal spaces, there is still a need for increased awareness of the importance of hand and surface hygiene in the office. Office telephones were tested; 43% of them had an ATP reading of 100 and only 4% had a level greater than 300.

“This study demonstrates that contamination is all over the workplace and has the potential to reach people where they eat and prepare food, as well as elsewhere,” noted Brad Reynolds, North American Platform Leader, The Healthy Workplace Project, Kimberly-Clark Professional. He added, “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%.”

In summary, the study found that office workers are potentially being exposed to illness-causing bacteria most often right in their lunchrooms; furthermore, other office locations are likely to have a significant level of contamination. Dr. Gerba noted, “People are aware of the risk of germs in the restroom, but areas like break rooms have not received the same degree of attention. 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.”

Kimberly-Clark notes that their results reinforce the crucial role of contract cleaners; if these individuals do a thorough job of disinfecting office common areas at the end of every work day, contamination can be reduced. Kitchens and personal work spaces are more problematic because they can become instantly re-contaminated; thus, employers need to arm their employees with the knowledge and tools necessary to reduce the spread of germs. Simple solutions, like placing sanitizing wipes in kitchens and providing employees with easy access to hand sanitizers, underscored by education in hand and surface hygiene, can serve as the impetus to engage employees in maintaining a healthy office environment.

Although only 4% of office telephones had high levels of contamination and 43% had low levels of contamination, a telephone mouthpiece is a likely avenue for germ spread. Touching a contaminated handle requires subsequent touching of the mouth without hand washing; however, the mouthpiece comes into close contact with the mouth. Thus, before using a telephone shared by others, cleanse the mouthpiece with a sanitary wipe.

Reference: Kimberly-Clark Professional