How germy and mouldy is your office after coming back from WFH?

If you’re reading this on your desktop at work, do you wonder how clean the very surfaces – including the keyboard, mouse and even the desk – you’re touching are? After all, the average office desk is said to contain 400 times more germs than a toilet seat, according to research by the University of Arizona.

It might have been weeks, months or even a year or so since you last set foot in the office. And for those who don’t have cleaners regularly sanitising the office while everyone was working from home, what sort of micro-organism growth has taken place while you were away? Makes you want to douse your entire desk with sanitiser, doesn’t it?

For starters, the same research found that, compared to women, men have three to four times the number of bacteria in, on and around their desks, phones, computers, keyboards, drawers and personal items. It might be that men have lower standards of personal grooming than women. Men also tend to have bigger desks, which gives them a bigger surface area to deposit bacteria, according to the research.

(Photo: iStock/mixetto)

HOW GERMY IS YOUR OFFICE?

Whether it’s mould, bacteria or viruses, there are always going to be microbes around you. Humans, for one, are a source of these microorganisms, said Associate Professor Richard Sugrue from Nanyang Technological University’s Department of Biological Sciences. Also, “different microbes can attach to small dust particles in the air and settle on surfaces”, he said.

“There are many kinds of bacteria, viruses and fungi found on environmental surfaces commonly left behind from our skin as well as other bacteria and mould that exist naturally in the environment,” said Dr Louisa Sun, an infectious disease consultant with Alexandra Hospital.

Furthermore, at locations and surfaces that experience high footfall and touch, it is common to find “skin bacteria and others like enterococci (faecal bacteria that can cause infections of the urinary tract, blood and wounds etc), several common cold viruses and other viruses that cause diarrhoea and stomach flu”, said Dr Sun.

Of course, not all of your microscopic deskmates can potentially make you sick; some are just “part of our skin flora and are not harmful”, she added.

Does that mean you’ve brought back a workstation-full of microbes after a hiatus of months or even a year? Not so much for bacteria and viruses, said Assoc Prof Sugrue. “In general, viruses (in particular, enveloped viruses such as COVID-19) are not very stable for extended periods on most surfaces.”

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You should perhaps be looking out for mould. When enclosed rooms have been left vacant for more than three months, the high humidity level there can encourage mould growth, cautioned Richard Khaw, the deputy director of the School of Applied Science at Nanyang Polytechnic.

“Mould spreads very quickly through the formation of spores and they produce allergens,” said Khaw. “If one inhales or touches mould spores, it may cause an allergic reaction such as irritation to the respiratory system or even inflammation in those with a weak immune system.”

FINALLY RETURNED TO THE OFFICE?

If your office has been left empty for a long time, here’s what you can do:

Wipe everything with a disinfectant: Use a household bleach that contains 10 per cent sodium hypochlorite, said Khaw. Or opt for a disinfectant with 70 per cent alcohol. Also, wiping something longer does not mean that it is going to be cleaner, he said. “Most importantly, we must ensure that entire surfaces are wiped thoroughly.”

(Photo: iStock/Vahe Aramyan)

Use a reusable cloth instead of disposable disinfectant wipes: It is more environmentally friendly to use the good ol’ Good Morning towel or any reusable cloth that you can rinse after each wipe down, suggested Khaw. Remember to rinse the cloth after wiping each surface, even if you use a disinfectant. 

In fact, Khaw recommended using separate cloths for different areas such as high-touch zones (for example, the doorknobs), personal workstations and shared equipment (such as the photocopier) to reduce the risk of cross contamination.

Get the mould professionals: If the mould doesn’t budge after cleaning, you may need to engage the services of a professional cleaning company, said Dr Sun.

Don’t just rinse utensils: Scrubbing with dishwashing detergent and a clean sponge is important as the utensils may have been left damp without being dried properly, said Khaw. “Bacteria can attach to these damp surfaces to form a layer of biofilm, which could then multiply. Once a biofilm layer is formed, it cannot be dislodged easily simply by rinsing with running water.”

Replace air-condition’s filter: “Contaminated air may be continuously circulated if the filter system is not maintained and checked frequently,” said Khaw. “If an enclosed space has been vacant for a long period of time, it is advisable to clean the air-conditioning system and change the air filter before occupants return to the office.”

(Photo: iStock/nortonrsx)

WHAT DO YOU DO TO MAINTAIN OFFICE HYGIENE?

Even with your best effort, “we cannot completely remove every organism present on surfaces”, said Dr Sun. “The most important thing to do is to wash our hands properly with soap and water regularly throughout the day, especially before and after meals. And, of course, after using the washroom.”

She said: “Regular and proper hand washing should be observed as the main activity to help to reduce the transmission of various infectious pathogens that can be transferred to our hands from these environmental surfaces. Bear in mind we are also touching multiple other surfaces in shared or public spaces every day”.

(Photo: iStock/efenzi)

To help you keep your workstation as germ-free as possible, here’s a look:

Soap and water are fine: Just wipe your workspace with normal soap and water, said Dr Sun. You don’t have to break out the big guns such as bleach and alcohol every day – provided you’ve been routinely keeping your desk clean. Moreover, the daily use of disinfectants and alcohol wipes is “harmful to our skin and cause irritation”, she said.

“It is good practice to rinse or use different cloths when cleaning different equipment and surfaces,” she added.

Monitor for mould: To minimise the build-up of mould and fungi, ensure good ventilation and reduce the moisture in the room, said Assoc Prof Sugrue.

Change the filter: Clean or replace the filter in the air-conditioner at least once every three months to maintain good indoor air quality, said Khaw.

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