Where the Germs Are: New Study Finds Office Kitchens and Break Rooms are Crawling with Bacteria

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If you thought the restroom was the epicenter of workplace germs you don’t want to know about office break rooms and kitchens.

The place where US workers eat and prepare their lunch topped the list of office germ “hot-spots,” with sink and microwave door handles found to be the dirtiest surfaces touched by office workers on a daily basis.

The findings are from a study carried out by Kimberly-Clark Professional and is believed to be one of the most detailed and comprehensive studies ever conducted on identifying workplace hotspots where germs can lurk. Hygienists from Kimberly-Clark Professional The Healthy Workplace Project collected nearly 5,000 individual swabs from office buildings housing more than 3,000 employees. The participating office buildings represented a broad cross-section of office “types” including manufacturing facilities, law firms, insurance companies, healthcare companies and call centers.

According to the study, which was carried out in consultation with Dr. Charles Gerba, Professor of Microbiology at the University of Arizona, the percentage of the office surfaces tested and found to have high levels of contamination (an ATP count of 300 or higher), includes:

  • 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

In addition, half of all computer mice and desk phones were found to have ATP levels above 100, suggesting that while people 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.

The bottom line? Office workers are potentially being exposed to illness-causing bacteria right in their own lunchrooms, as well as elsewhere around the office.

“People are aware of the risk of germs in the restroom, but areas like break rooms have not received the same degree of attention,” said Dr. Gerba. “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 results reinforce the crucial role of contract cleaners, whose services go a long way in successfully disinfecting office common areas at the end of every day.  However, because kitchens and personal work spaces can become instantly re-contaminated, 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.

“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,” said Brad Reynolds, North American Platform Leader, The Healthy Workplace Project*, Kimberly-Clark Professional. “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 percent.”