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Dirtiest places in an Office: Ensuring a Safe, Clean Environment for Employees

Staying on top of the dirtiest places in an office is critical to ensuring employee safety and maximizing productivity. Employees come to work each day expecting reasonably clean spaces. Visibly dirty desks, bathrooms, and common areas can have a profound effect on employees’ morale and can distract them from important work.

Cleanliness at work is more than a morale or productivity concern—it’s also an employee health issue. Workers often get sick at work, and as many as 90 percent of employees come to work sick, further increasing the potential for illness throughout the office. This article will shed some light on the dirtiest places in an office and offer some guidance on how to adjust your cleaning regimen to decrease office illnesses.

Highest concentrations of airborne pathogens in an office

For many, the COVID-19 pandemic shed a bright light on the dangers of airborne pathogens. But even once COVID-19 subsides, offices will still have to contend with flu, rhinovirus, allergies, and other ailments associated with poor indoor air quality.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), specific building problems such as poor ventilation may also contribute to health problems. Environmental factors can contribute to underlying issues like asthma or, in the longer term, increase one’s risk of cancer and other serious diseases.

Causes of indoor air problems

Considering that Americans spend as much as 90 percent of their time indoors—much of that in offices specifically—it stands to reason that indoor air quality would be such a profound concern. Poor or unmaintained ventilation and temperature control systems can distribute unclean air throughout indoor spaces, contributing to illness. For example, an unmaintained air conditioning unit might draw in improperly filtered vehicle exhaust from outside the office building, resulting in an unpleasant indoor environment.

Building materials such as asbestos and fibers from office upholstery can further compromise indoor air quality. Chemicals from certain commercial cleaning supplies can also pollute indoor air. However, the benefits of cleaning generally outweigh the cons, especially if you’re mindful of which cleaning materials or cleaning service you use in the office.

The effects of airborne viruses and bacteria

The airborne transmission of viruses and bacteria can quickly take employees out of commission. COVID-19, though still fresh in everyone’s minds, is just one of many potential pathogens. The common cold and influenza were circulating in offices long before the pandemic and will impact employee health and productivity long after. According to a report from the Integrated Benefits Institute, illness-related lost productivity cost US employers $575 billion in 2019.

Beyond the economic impact, office outbreaks caused by airborne pathogens could put older or immunocompromised employees at risk. At the very least, an unclean environment prone to causing illness can make employees feel undervalued.

How germs spread in the office

Coughing and sneezing are two obvious ways germs spread through the air. Employees can also spread germs by touching objects as they go about their day. Objects that multiple people might touch on a given day—including doorknobs and handles, keyboards, refrigerator handles, and coffee pots—are prime vectors for the spread of viruses and bacteria.

Where bacteria congregates most in an office

Bacteria can be found all over an office—particularly in areas that see frequent use and infrequent cleaning. It’s to everyone’s benefit that office managers identify these areas and make strides to keep them clean.

Bacteria in common areas

Through samples collected from more than 3,000 employees, a study from the Healthy Workplace Project unearthed some alarming information about bacteria in the workplace. The study found a high level of contamination (defined as an adenosine triphosphate count of 300 or more) on 75 percent of break-room-sink faucet handles. Other common areas of high contamination include microwave door handles, elevator buttons, water fountain buttons, and vending machine buttons.

How quickly germs can spread

Wherever an infected person goes, so go their germs. The University of Arizona conducted a study analyzing how quickly germs can spread in an office. The study found that just one sick person could contaminate more than 50 percent of surfaces and infect more than 50 percent of the employees in just four hours. This shows that cleaning certain office surfaces once a week or even once a day isn’t enough. To significantly reduce risk from germs, offices would do well to clean frequently used spaces and surfaces multiple times a day.

Bacteria in bathrooms

Since many people may occupy an office bathroom on a given day, it makes sense that it would be one of the dirtiest places in an office. Not only is it a place where one might encounter pathogens spread by bodily fluids, but also the presence of moisture can provide an ideal bacterial growth environment. One study of public restrooms found 500,000 bacterial cells per square inch after one hour of normal use. Still, it’s important to note that there’s little evidence of people coming down with serious illnesses from bathrooms—especially those that see regular cleaning and disinfecting.

Most overlooked area by office cleaners

There are many places in a typical office that are in obvious need of cleaning and thus receive plenty of attention—the bathroom, for example. However, there are certain areas in the office that many people, including office cleaners, don’t think to clean or don’t feel they have permission to clean. Identifying these areas and making sure they stay clean are critical steps for ensuring a healthy, productive staff.

Spots that get missed

The same Healthy Workplace Project study cited above found high-level contamination on 48 percent of microwave door handles, 27 percent of keyboards, and 26 percent of refrigerator door handles. Certain offices have break rooms and common areas where no one in particular feels responsible for cleaning. When no one cleans these areas, germs thrive. Some workspaces have clutter that commercial cleaning staff may feel uneasy organizing and cleaning, leading to an unchecked buildup of grime.

Cleanliness and productivity

While it’s clear how illness caused by dirty workspaces can lead to reduced productivity, it’s harder to estimate the positive effect cleanliness can have on productivity. Still, an employee is more likely to feel better about a clean work environment than a dirty one. They aren’t distracted by cluttered or soiled surfaces, and regular office cleaning may even yield a more positive view of their job and employer.

Germs on office furniture

Some cleaning services and office managers don’t think to clean chairs, couches, and other pieces of office furniture. However, upholstered office furniture can accumulate muck just like any other office surface. This is not surprising, considering the average person sheds tens of thousands of skins cells every hour. When cleaning office furniture, it’s important to use the cleaning supplies and equipment designed to remove the most buildup possible.

Worst places to eat food in an office

When the pressure is on, it’s common for employees to eat fast-food meals or snacks at their desks. However, considering that the average desk is one of the dirtiest places in an office, this is usually a bad idea. Eating in unclean conditions is a surefire way to introduce potentially harmful pathogens to your system.

Germs on your desk

According to a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the typical office desk harbors more than 10 million bacteria. This is four hundred times more germs than might be found on a typical toilet seat.

Part of this is because employees spend a lot of their time at their desks, and many desks go a long time between cleanings. Eating at one’s desk isn’t just unsanitary; it may also be inconsiderate, as certain food smells in the work environment may be unpleasant or distracting to coworkers.

Ensuring cleanliness

No matter where you eat in your office, it’s important that you ensure it’s clean. This may involve eating in a space you know to be cleaned regularly, or it could be a space you clean yourself by removing dirt and disinfecting with a disinfectant wipe before you sit down. At the very least, you can wash your hands with soap for at least twenty seconds before eating to reduce the risks associated with pathogens. Hand sanitizer can provide further protection from pathogens—especially when used in tandem with handwashing.

Where to eat instead

Most offices have spaces set up for their employees to eat lunch and snacks—a break room or a cafeteria. Assuming cleaning services clean these spaces regularly, these are likely the best places to eat in the office. However, it’s important to be careful in these areas as well, as microwaves and break-room-sink faucet handles have been shown to have surprisingly high levels of contamination.

Keeping the office clean

Let’s face it: the office isn’t most people’s favorite place in the world. Workers will like it even less if they feel like their work environment is unsanitary or even unsafe. More than 50 percent of workers say they would prefer to continue working from home after the COVID-19 pandemic ends. For traditional offices to coax workers back to the office, they need to upgrade their approach to office cleaning.

Spruce Industries has a long history of working with offices to ensure they have all the cleaning supplies they need to keep their spaces clean. Contact us to learn more about the dirtiest places in an office and how our products support our customers.

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