UFE in the Office: How to Protect Yourself this Flu Season
While we have already mentioned how contaminated office keyboards can be, there are several other high-risk UFE (Urine Feces Everywhere) areas in the workplace. While some will come as no surprise, you may be running for the disinfectant wipes when you hear about these other polluted surfaces.
In a study done by Kimberly-Clark Professional, the bathroom is not the dirtiest place in the office. No, the award for Filthiest Communal Area actually goes to the office break room. As microbiologist Dr. Charles Gerba explains, “People are aware of the risk of germs in the restroom, but areas like break rooms have not received the same degree of attention.” Microwaves and refrigerators are left dirty and full of food, counters are left with crumbs, and faucets and handles are left uncleaned. Using an ATP meter to determine the sanitary conditions of various office surfaces, the Kimberly-Clark study found break room sink faucets, microwave door handles, refrigerator handles, and vending machine buttons to be “officially dirty,” and high-risk areas for spreading illnesses.
In a 2002 study, Dr. Gerba found office desktops to hold almost 21,000 germs per square inch – that’s over 400 times worse than the average toilet seat, which contains around 49 germs per square inch. “A lot of people eat and slop on their desks all the time,” Gerba says, “so it basically turns into a bacteria cafeteria during the day.” In fact, 75 percent of office workers eat lunch at their desks 2-3 times a week. For women, it’s even worse. Studies have shown that women spend more time at their desk than men, and tend to have more things on their desk collecting germs. Wiping desks, keyboards, and other items daily reduces the risks significantly – it’s just a matter of getting into the habit. “We routinely find cold viruses on desktops during the cold season,” Gerba says. And with flu season fast approaching, you’ll be thanking yourself for the extra wipe-downs soon enough.
We know cell phones are dirty, and your office phone isn’t any better. While your personal office phone is teeming with bacteria and contagions, a shared office phone is even worse. Dr. Gerba’s study of office equipment found phone receivers hold more than 25,127 germs per square inch – over 500 times that of a toilet seat, and worse than your office desktop. Being close to our mouth and nose, we’re both more susceptible and more likely to transmit harmful bacteria and viruses by using the receiver. Disinfecting regularly or investing in personal headsets can severely decrease your risk of contracting a virus or bacteria that could make you miserable this flu season.
As difficult as it is to resist the sweet temptation of the office candy dish, your health (and maybe waistline) will thank you if you do. Dr. Gerba’s studies repeatedly found intestinal bacteria in candy dishes. Dirty hands take the candy, and dirty hands leave something behind. Even individually wrapped candy can hold bacteria and pathogens that can be harmful, especially during flu season. If you’re unable to resist that sweet afternoon snack, you’re better off having a private stash of your own on hand, as long as you’re making sure your own hands aren’t the dirty culprit.
Unfortunately, the same people who don’t wash their hands and leave messes in the break room are also touching the same door knobs you are. Because bathrooms are expected to be dirty, bathroom door knobs are often wiped down, while other door knobs are left contaminated, crawling with bacteria that could easily land you with the flu for a week. The same goes with light switches and elevator buttons. Every time you use a door knob, press the button for the Ground Floor, or flip on a light switch, you’re putting yourself at risk. Always try to avoid touching your nose, mouth, and eyes until you wash your hands. If you can, leaving doors open and pressing buttons with a tissue or sleeve will also help limit the exposure and spread of bacteria and illnesses.
Gerba explains that “80 percent of the infections you get are transmitted through the environment.” While much of what you’re exposed to in your daily life is out of your control, you can still help protect and defend yourself. With flu season creeping closer, now is the perfect time to get into the habit of being safe and sanitized. Your co-workers may laugh at you as you disinfect all the phones and light switches, but they won’t be laughing when they’re stuck in bed with the flu and you’re baking gingerbread cookies for the office Christmas party.