What's for lunch in your office?

March 22, 2006|by LYNN F. LITTLE

Did you know that the average office desktop has about 400 times more bacteria living on it than the average toilet seat?

In 2004, a microbiologist from the University of Arizona completed a study funded by The Clorox Co. that focused on bacteria levels in the workplace. The study found that personal offices and cubicles had higher levels of bacteria than common areas in the office.

The surface harboring the most bacteria was the phone, followed by the desktop, water fountain handle, microwave door handle and computer keyboard, respectively.

People are spending more and more time at the office and, according to a survey completed by the American Dietetic Association and ConAgra Foods Foundation, 70 percent of Americans regularly eat lunch at their desks. Some people eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at their desks, while others munch on snacks all day.


All of this food can turn your desk into a buffet table for bacteria. If you are one of the many Americans who eat off their desk or eat while completing other office tasks, you might be eating more than just peanut butter and jelly on your sandwich. You could also be consuming bacteria that have the potential to make you sick.

There are many ways to decrease the number of unwanted visitors you have during your workplace mealtimes. Keep in mind, these tips are intended to deter bacterial visitors. You are on your own when it comes to dealing with visiting co-workers.

  • Begin with the basics. Many people don't think about cleaning their desk, phone or keyboard until they lay their hand on something sticky. It is best to get in the habit of cleaning personal office surfaces with a disinfectant wipe once a day. The University of Arizona study showed that bacteria levels decreased by 99.9 percent when workers began to use disinfectant wipes on a daily basis.

  • Get a handle on germs. You touch many surfaces during the work day, so you never know what kind or how many germs are on your hands. Always wash your hands with warm soapy water before you eat, after you use the restroom, blow your nose, sneeze or cough. When you wash your hands, it's recommended that your rub your hands together for a total of 20 seconds or about the time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice. If soap and water are not available, you can use moist towelettes or bottled hand sanitizers.

  • Raid the refrigerator. About 44 percent of office refrigerators are only cleaned out once a month and 22 percent are only cleaned out once or twice a year. Most leftover foods in your refrigerator should be thrown out in three to five days, which would require cleaning out the fridge at least once a week.

    While you're thinking about the fridge, take time to make sure the refrigerator is running at the proper temperature. A refrigerator should maintain a temperature of 40 degrees or lower. Purchasing an inexpensive refrigerator thermometer to leave in your office refrigerator is the best way to make sure your fridge is maintaining a safe temperature.

  • Monitor the microwave. In the University of Arizona study, the microwave door handle was one of the top five homes for bacteria. Clean your microwave frequently, being sure to disinfect the handle. Also, make sure employees using the microwave clean up their spills or splattered food immediately after the mess happens. It's much easier to clean a new spill than one that's hard and dried.

  • Avoid the danger zone. The danger zone is between 40 and 140 degrees. Microorganisms grow and multiply rapidly at temperatures in this zone.

    Avoid the danger zone by keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold. If you pack perishable foods like sandwiches, leftovers or yogurt in your lunch, make sure you keep them in the refrigerator until it is time to eat. If a refrigerator is not available, place an ice pack, frozen juice box or frozen water bottle in your lunchbox to keep your food cold.

    When you reheat leftovers, heat them to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. If you like microwave meals, follow the directions provided on the box and make sure they are heated until they are steaming.

  • Attend to your lunchbox. Every day you carry home dirty food containers and used silverware in your lunchbox or bag. There also might be little food splatters and crumbs lurking in the bottom of your lunchbox, but how often do you take time to clean it out? Your lunchbox should be cleaned with hot, soapy water every day. Don't forget to wash your reusable ice pack too, as it was also exposed to your dirty dishes and food crumbs.

  • Ditch the company dishrag. If you wash your dishes at work, do not use the community dishrag or sponge, unless you are positive they are safe to use.

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