The ABCs of Workplace Cleanliness

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You’ve long suspected it, and modern science has confirmed it: Your office is dirty.

A study of 105 offices found high levels of bacteria on phones, keyboards, door knobs, microwave handles, the water fountain, water faucets, and in restrooms and office break rooms, according to the International Journal of Environmental Health Research.

Messy Desk

But there’s dirt and then there’s germs. Germs and bacteria are what can spread colds and viruses. If you’re reading this at your desk, eating lunch over your keyboard, you might be tempted to run out and get yourself some antibacterial wipes to clean everything. But don’t. The overuse of antibiotics in cleaning products--and in treating viruses, as opposed to infections--is contributing to growing antibiotic resistance in people and creating antibiotic resistant strains of staph and other bacteria.

Antibiotic resistance arises when bacteria mutate in order to survive our attempts to eradicate them. The more we use any particular antibiotics or antibacterial cleaners, the greater the chance that resistance to that antibacterial agent will develop, according to Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, an associate director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In May 2014, Minnesota became the first state in the U.S. to ban the use of triclosan, a common active ingredient in antibacterial soaps, body washes, and other consumer products. While the law will not go into effect until 2017, it shows growing public concern over the use of everyday antibacterial cleansers thought to contribute to antibiotic resistance. In December 2013, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) announced it would investigate triclosan because of evidence that its use may also alter hormone regulation in humans, animals, and fish.

So if we want to cut back on antibacterial cleaning agents, what products should we be using to safely clean our work place?

Office Cleaning 101

First clean, then disinfect. According to the CDC, "all-purpose" cleaners are designed to remove dirt, grime, and other substances from surfaces. "Disinfectants," on the other hand, are created to kill bacteria, viruses, and other organisms--not to clean. Cleaners with the word "antibacterial" on their labels generally only kill bacteria and contain antibiotic agents.

cleaningTo clean up a spill, a general all-purpose cleaner may be all that’s necessary. According to Consumer Reports, almost all available all-purpose cleaners—including environmentally safe green cleaners and even homemade mixtures of  ½ water and ½ white vinegar--worked well to remove grease and grime if proper time and effort were applied.

Homemade disinfectants can work to kill germs, including bacteria and viruses, which may be present on our work surfaces and live for 2–8 hours after an infected person has touched the surface area. According to the CDC, to kill the flu and other viruses, one option is to clean with a mixture of bleach and water by adding one tablespoon of bleach for each quart of water. Mix in a spray bottle and spray affected area, letting it sit for 5–10 minutes for maximum disinfection, then wipe clean. To eliminate germs at the office, disinfectant wipes are also a good option for select areas. (Make sure the label says “disinfectant,” not “antibacterial.”) Wipe down your desktop, phone, and keyboard on a daily basis to remove bacteria, viruses, and other organisms. For a disinfectant to work, make sure to follow the directions. And remember that these same rules apply when disinfecting your home kitchen and bathroom.

Top 3 tips to keep your office clean and reduce germ transmission:

  • If you use antibacterial soap at home or the office, consider trading it for regular soap if you are not immune-compromised or do not work in a healthcare setting.

  • Instead of antibacterial cleaners, use all-purpose cleaners (or or a homemade combination of ½ vinegar and ½ water) for dirt and grime in most areas. Use disinfectants for high-touch areas like keyboards, phones and common areas.

  • Consider a daily disinfectant wipe-down of  high traffic office areas such as the microwave, fridge and faucet handles, kitchen countertops, and door knobs.

Wash your hands

how to wash hands

Where do all these germs and viruses come from? Dirty hands! The best way to prevent the spread of germs, the common cold, or the flu, is proper hand washing. According to a 2005 CDC study, there is no advantage to using antibacterial hand soap over regular soap for those who do not work in a healthcare setting. Use proper technique to ensure hands are actually clean.

Proper Hand Washing

1. Wet your hands with water. The temperature of the water does not matter.

2. Lather your hands, including under the nails.

3. Scrub for at least 20 seconds—the length of time it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice.

4. Rinse with clean water.

5. Dry thoroughly. Microbes (tiny organisms that may or may not cause disease) are transferred more easily with wet hands.

Washing our hands throughout the day, before and after preparing food, and before eating is the best way to protect us from germs.

Maggie McLain, MPH, is a Portland-based wellness professional with a background in personal training and health coaching.

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