The Dirty Truth about your Desk

March 29, 2002
Perhaps one of the biggest safety hazards in your workplace isn't on the shop floor, but in your office. The average desk harbors about 400 times more bacteria than the average toilet seat.

Perhaps one of the biggest safety hazards in your workplace isn''t on the shop floor, but in your office. Did you know that the average desk harbors about 400 times more bacteria than the average toilet seat?

Dr. Charles Gerba, known as the University of Arizona "germ guru," says you might not be the only one working late in your office. Apparently, you have plenty of bacteria - as many as 10 million - keeping you company.

Gerba conducted the first study of its kind to measure normal bacterial levels inside offices across America. Paper isn''t the only thing piling up on desks.

"For bacteria, a desk is really the laptop of luxury," says Gerba. "They can feast all day from breakfast to lunch and even dinner."

Gerba and his researchers found that unless desks were wiped clean with a disinfectant during the day, bacteria levels climbed higher and higher, peaking after lunch.

The study, funded by a grant from the Clorox Co., which manufactures disinfectant wipes, found that surprisingly, surfaces in personal work areas such as offices and cubicles had higher bacteria levels than surfaces in common areas. Telephones are the most popular germ home, followed by desks, water fountain handles, microwave door handles and computer keyboards. Surprisingly, toilet seats consistently had the lowest bacteria levels of the 12 surfaces tested in the study.

"We don''t think twice about eating at our desks, even though the average desk has 100 times more bacteria than a kitchen table and 400 times more bacteria than the average toilet," reveals Gerba. "Without cleaning, a small area on your desk or phone can sustain millions of bacteria that could potentially cause illness."

With more people spending more time at their desks - the average workweek has increased to over 47 hours, according to the Families and Work Institute - bacteria are finding plenty to snack on.

For the study, Gerba and his team separated office workers into two groups. One group used disinfecting wipes to clean their desks, phones and computers; the other did not. Within two days, the wipes users were found to have a 99.9 percent reduction in bacteria levels.

Other study highlights:

  • Among people who did not use wipes, bacteria levels increased an average of 19 percent to 31 percent on their telephone, computer mouse, keyboard and desktop surfaces throughout a typical workday.
  • The area where you rest your hand on your desk has, on average, 10 million bacteria.

The study team evaluated a variety of office locations, environments and surfaces. Study sites included private offices, cubicles and common work areas in offices located in New York, San Francisco, Tucson and Tampa. A total of 7,000 samples were collected nationwide and analyzed at the University of Arizona laboratories.

So how can workers control the spread of illness-causing bacteria? "One good way to kill bacteria and help stop the spread of germs is to regularly clean your personal workspace," says Gerba. "During the study, we found that using disinfecting wipes can dramatically reduce that number and therefore help reduce your chances of illness."

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

About the Author

EHS Today Staff

EHS Today's editorial staff includes:

Dave Blanchard, Editor-in-Chief: During his career Dave has led the editorial management of many of Endeavor Business Media's best-known brands, including IndustryWeekEHS Today, Material Handling & LogisticsLogistics Today, Supply Chain Technology News, and Business Finance. In addition, he serves as senior content director of the annual Safety Leadership Conference. With over 30 years of B2B media experience, Dave literally wrote the book on supply chain management, Supply Chain Management Best Practices (John Wiley & Sons, 2021), which has been translated into several languages and is currently in its third edition. He is a frequent speaker and moderator at major trade shows and conferences, and has won numerous awards for writing and editing. He is a voting member of the jury of the Logistics Hall of Fame, and is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.

Adrienne Selko, Senior Editor: In addition to her roles with EHS Today and the Safety Leadership Conference, Adrienne is also a senior editor at IndustryWeek and has written about many topics, with her current focus on workforce development strategies. She is also a senior editor at Material Handling & Logistics. Previously she was in corporate communications at a medical manufacturing company as well as a large regional bank. She is the author of Do I Have to Wear Garlic Around My Neck?, which made the Cleveland Plain Dealer's best sellers list.

Nicole Stempak, Managing Editor:  Nicole Stempak is managing editor of EHS Today and conference content manager of the Safety Leadership Conference.

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