Just getting to work can be a bacteria-ridden experience. The subway is full of it, as are stair railings and revolving doors. But once you finally sit down at your desk for the day, you’re still exposed.
The germiest places tend to be high-traffic areas where a lot of different people touch the same surface, and your office is no exception. But by taking one main precaution—washing your hands regularly—you’ll reduce your risk for getting sick. Here are five of the most bacteria-filled spots in your workplace.
Elevator buttons and escalator railings
Pretty much everyone who goes above the second floor of a building touches them, so elevator buttons and the handles on escalators harbor organisms at high rates because of high traffic, says Philip Tierno, director of microbiology and immunology at New York University Langone Medical Center. One study published in the journal Open Medicine found that 61% of elevator buttons were contaminated with bacteria, while only 43% of toilets (which are regularly cleaned) were. In the case of escalator railings, the material of the surface may also be a factor. Research has found that hanging grips in subway cars were hotspots for germs, in part because of the material of the grip. Handrails, including those on escalators, are usually made of a rubber material which can also harbor organisms, says Tierno—and they’re not cleaned very often.
High-touch areas like these are a main reason why people get sick, Tierno says. Germs either spread through direct contact (talking to a sick colleague, kissing someone sick or receiving a sneeze in the face) or indirect contact (when someone sick touches an object, like an elevator button or escalator railing, and you touch that object and also touch your mouth, eyes, nose or a break in your skin.)
To avoid getting sick from touching germy surfaces, wash your hands for 15 to 20 seconds—making sure you hit in between your fingers, the tops of your hands and under the nail bed—before touching your face or eating. A quarter-sized amount of alcohol-based hand sanitizer (look for one with 62% alcohol, he says) will also kill organisms, Tierno says.
Door handles are a common source of indirect contamination, says Tierno. But a door knob’s material may determine how many bacteria live on it. Bare metal doorknobs, when uncoated and unpainted, may be inhibitory to microbes if they contain copper, zinc or nickel, he says.
Still, if you go through a crowded entryway to reach your office or have people flooding in and out of your workspace all day, hand-washing is the most effective protective strategy.
Even though you’re likely the only one touching it, your keyboard can harbor bacteria. The authors of one study published in The American Journal of Microbiology swabbed 250 different keyboards, and all of them had microbial contamination. Other research has found that the amount of microbial contamination on keyboards and computer mice was high enough to potentially be transmitted should a person’s hands become contaminated. Swabbing your keyboard and mouse every day with a disinfectant wipe will help kill organisms.
Conference room phone
Americans touch their cell phones almost 50 times a day, which is one reason why a recent study found that the phones of high school students are covered in bacteria. Most of the microbes on your phone are not the kind that will make you sick; however, studies have found that harmful bacteria like Streptococcus, MRSA and E. coli do show up on cell phones. But experts are often more concerned with shared phones—like those in a conference room—because they are used by many and rarely cleaned. “Anything in an office that is touched by numerous individuals over the course of a day or days could be a culprit,” Tierno says.
Break room coffee cups
Here’s a good reason to bring your own cup of joe: It’s not uncommon for coffee cup lids to be contaminated with fecal matter, says Tierno. One study found that about 20% of office coffee cups harbored bacteria from feces. The lids are particularly problematic because so many people handle them. “Numerous people touch them, then drop a few that they don’t need—but they’re handling many,” says Tierno.