06/04/2012 08:49 EDT | Updated 08/04/2012 05:12 EDT

Staying Germ-Free at the Office Takes More Than Washing Hands

2012-05-28-GermGuyBanner.jpg A recent microbiology study of the office has gone further than any other and provided a path for the improvement of the quality of life in the office environment. The team swabbed offices in three major American cities and found the usual suspects -- fecal bacteria, skin bacteria -- but also identified 500 other types of microbes...


It happens a few times each year. A microbiologist heads out of the lab, armed with dozens of sampling swabs, and hunts down germs in one of the most populated areas: the office. Soon after, the results invariably show that these microscopic creatures are everywhere and that to stay safe, people need to adhere to proper hand washing and regular cleaning of keyboards, mice, refrigerators and coffee makers.

These studies make for great news fodder although they only scratch the surface of work-related health, offering just enough information to keep germs in the public eye and emphasize the need for hygiene. But a recent study conducted by the laboratory of Scott Kelley and published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE has gone further than any other study and provided a path for the improvement of the quality of life in the office environment.

Kelley's team swabbed a number of surfaces located in three American cities: New York, San Francisco and Tucson. From there, they identified the genetic makeup of the microbes. Much like every other study, the usual Latin-named suspects of germy goodness were identified. These included human skin bacterial flora, such as Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, and Corynebacterium; the fecal bacteria, Lactococcus and Enterobacteriaceae (also known as fecal coliforms); and environmental bacteria including Pseudomonas and the Micrococci.

Where this study really impresses is through the identification over 500 other types of microbes. The researchers found high levels of potential pathogens such as those that cause acne and gastrointestinal upset as well as a selection of outdoor organisms including some bacteria that are normally found in hot springs. This microbe compilation has become a treasure for any environmental microbiologist and offers two specific hypotheses that can act as a base for interventions to help keep the office environment healthy for its staff.

First and foremost is the premise that the maintenance of a diverse ecosystem is paramount to improved health at the workplace. From this study, and another one conducted by a group from Yale looking at the microbial nature of the air of university classrooms, there is a clear indication that the use of recycled air and a lack of cleaning drive the microbial balance towards populations that interact and affect humans. In this scenario, it's only a matter of time before the potential pathogens start to accumulate and affect the staff, the so-called "sick building syndrome."

To combat this, air filtration may help to keep pathogenic microbial levels low. But increasing the variety of microbes may also offer benefits. For example, opening up the windows or allowing 100 per cent fresh air into the system will keep those levels mixed. Also, the incorporation of plants may help by promoting the survival of soil and plant germs.

The other valuable postulate is that in the event that microbial populations shift away from diversity to pathogens, the body needs to be ready to co-exist to keep the worker safe. There is little doubt that a healthy work environment increases productivity and job satisfaction but few realize that a balanced immune system also tends to keep workers happy.

The specifics of how to achieve this equilibrium are highly complex but the actions necessary are fairly easy. Maintaining an "active lifestyle" is one way to keep the immune system balanced, but some may find this regimen difficult. For these people, the use of naturally immune-friendly supplements, such as Vitamin D, fibre, and probiotics, may offer support. This could be taken further such that employers could offer these supplements in the kitchen to encourage staff to keep the body healthy on the inside. This could be a perfect example of corporate social responsibility towards employees with the intent to maintain productivity and a more content staff.

The office is a complex and dynamic environment and its contribution to health continues to be enigmatic in light of the fact that a great number of people spend up to a third or more of their daily time at work. There is no doubt that hygiene is imperative and microbiologists like myself will continue to stress the gold standards of hand hygiene, social distancing and staying home when sick.

But with the Kelley study helping to answer some of the questions associated with office life and health, the message will hopefully change to become less about the demand for hygiene regimens and more about how to find microbial and immunological serenity.