What lurks beneath your workspace

Fingerprints after touching a moist kitchen sponge and

As winter bids its final farewell, the typical office workplace
sounds more like a doctor’s office than a place of business.
Ringing phones, clicking keyboards and cubicle conversations are
drowned out by coughing, sneezing and the sniffles.
As winter bids its final farewell, the typical office workplace sounds more like a doctor’s office than a place of business. Ringing phones, clicking keyboards and cubicle conversations are drowned out by coughing, sneezing and the sniffles.

Gone are the days when people actually stayed home when sick. Facing pressure to increase or at least maintain productivity, many office workers wake up feeling under the weather but decide to tough it out anyway. Little do they know the germs they spread.

Thousands and thousands of germs keep you company at your desk every day. When you eat lunch, so do they. When you sneeze, they love it. But several studies show many employees are less than diligent when it comes to personal hygiene and curbing germs in the workplace.

Nearly 80 percent of the 1,000 U.S. office workers surveyed by ServiceMaster Clean, a national residential and commercial janitorial service, said they get sick at least once a year from co-workers.

Almost half said they’ve seen co-workers leave the restroom without washing their hands, and 30 percent said they “sometimes” or “very often” retrieve items from trashcans in their office.

More than 20 percent said they see a co-worker sneeze, cough or yawn almost every day without covering their mouth.

That means nearly 80 percent said co-workers do cover their mouths – a clean habit, but it makes the community candy dish a little less appealing.

A changing work culture in the United States also contributes to an increase in germs. Eighty-five percent of workers said they frequently eat at their desks, mostly lunch but also, increasingly, dinner.

Additionally, more employees are doubling up on office space and sharing common office items that are playgrounds for germs, such as telephones, keyboards and computer mice.

At the same time, many companies are reducing or cutting janitorial services to cut costs.

A study from the University of Arizona found a typical desk is capable of supporting up to 10 million bacteria – that’s 400 times more germs than the average toilet seat.

More than 25,000 germs lurked in an average square inch of a telephone receiver, and nearly 21,000 germs contaminated the same amount of space on an average desktop.

Keyboards harbored 3,300 germs per square inch, while more than 1,600 found their homes on an average mouse.

The average square inch of a toilet seat has about 49 germs.

But never fear. There are ways you can kill germs before they get to you, and they’re more rudimentary than you might think.

“Even in this high-tech era that we live in, hand hygiene is the primary method of stopping spreading infection,” said Karen Aeschliman, infection control practitioner at Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital in Hollister.

Contrary to the traditional method of washing hands with soap and water, Aeschliman said the most effective way to kill germs is to use an alcohol-based, antibacterial hand sanitizer, which are sold in gel and foam forms as well as wipes.

About a year ago, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a new guideline that preferred the sanitizers over soap and water, Aeschliman said. Ethyl alcohol, the active ingredient in the sanitizers, is a natural antiseptic that physically destroys germs in seconds and without water.

And the claim that many brand name producers of such sanitizers make – that they kill 99.9 percent of germs – isn’t just inflated marketing, Aeschliman said.

“The alcohol isn’t effective when it’s wet, but it is when it dries. So even when it’s dried on your hands, that’s when it’s working,” she said. “And they’re very easy to use. You don’t need a sink and you don’t need paper towels.”

Another way to combat germs simply is to use common sense, said Sandy Simpkins, infection control coordinator with Kaiser Permanente Santa Teresa Medical Center.

“If you have a cough or cold or you’re running a fever, it’s probably better to stay home,” Simpkins said.

As handy and effective as sanitizer is, it doesn’t always replace good old-fashioned soap and water, Simpkins said. She recommended washing hands with soap and water after using the bathroom and before eating, and also after every eight to 10 uses of sanitizer.

The strongest, industrial strength version of the sanitizers – the kind used in hospitals – has a distinct and, to many, unpleasant alcohol smell. But several commercial versions offer scents ranging from strawberry to lemon to unscented.

To jazz it up for kids, some brands also offer the sanitizers with built-in color and glitter.

Keeping your hands clean is most important, but keeping office space clean ranks right up there, which is where the wipes come in handy.

Cleaning personal office space once a week or so should do the trick, Aeschliman said, and more often if the space is shared.

Damaris Valdez, an optometrist’s assistant at the Visual Edge Optometric Group in Gilroy, spends her days in close contact with patients, adjusting and handling their glasses.

Valdez also answers phones and enters patient data and appointments into the computer system.

“We wash our hands all the time, and we keep a bunch of hand sanitizer in the supply room,” she said. “A lot of our patients who come in are sick, and we’re constantly touching their glasses and getting close to them. So we have to be very careful to be very clean.”

When the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year issued a new guideline that preferred alcohol-based sanitizers over soap and water, a few nurses at Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital in Hollister weren’t so sure.

Karen Aeschliman, the hospital’s infection control practitioner, decided to convince them with a little experiment. She contaminated her fingers with an old, moist kitchen sponge, then pressed the germs into a petri dish. She washed her hands using soap and water and pressed her fingers into a new culture, demonstrating about half of the germs had been killed.

Then, she pressed her fingers into the sponge again and into a new petri dish. She washed her hands using an alcohol-based sanitizer and into another petri dish, demonstrating almost all the germs had been killed.

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