Article Features Web Exclusive Kathy Espinoza

Danger Lurking at Your Keyboard

Kathy Espinoza is a board certified professional ergonomist with Keenan & Associates and can be reached at

Say the word “keyboard” and you have most ergonomists thinking about repetitive motion injury prevention, but add the words “flu viruses and keyboards” in the same sentence and you have the attention of the work force. Quick question: How often do you disinfect or clean your keyboard? Once a day? Once a week? Once a month? Ever?

Preventing the spread of flu and other illnesses via computer keyboards should be a major work consideration. In light of the coming flu season, it’s important to consider how easily colds, flu and other infectious diseases are transferred from contact with all office equipment, including phones, computers and more. Given how often fingers touch computer keyboards, it’s not surprising that research studies are finding that keyboards are a galaxy of germs just waiting to be transported from the keys to your body via your nose, mouth and eyes. Employees who come to work with symptoms can infect others in the office and leave a trail of viruses on every surface they touch. Some of these viruses can survive up to three days.

Studies conducted by microbiologist Charles Gerba, Ph.D., at the University of Arizona found that phones, desktop surfaces, keyboards, computer mice, fax machines, copy machines and toilet seats all harbor germs that can make people sick. In a 2006 study, samples were collected from private offices and cubicles in office buildings located in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oregon and New York City. A total of 113 surfaces were tested and analyzed at the University of Arizona laboratories. The study found these averages for the following items:

  • Phone: 25,127 germs per square inch;
  • Desktop surface: 20,961 germs per square inch;
  • Keyboard: 3,295 germs per square inch;
  • Mouse: 1,676 germs per square inch; and
  • Toilet seat: 49 germs per square inch.

From a health and safety standpoint, this makes sense because custodial crews clean toilet seats frequently, using strong disinfectants that kill germs. Keyboards and other computer equipment, on the other hand, rarely get cleaned for fear of disturbing someone’s work. Sanitizing the keyboard and computer mouse cleaning or is usually left up to the employee. Keyboards are receptacles of coughs and sneezes as well as germs from unwashed fingers and hands from poor hygiene. This human factor-machine germ exchange occurs not only at work, but also at home and schools as well. Most schools and family households have more than one shared computer.

Picnic With the Germ Family

Do you eat lunch at your desk? A 2006 American Dietician Association (ADA) survey found that 57 percent of workers eat or snack at their desks at least once a day. As the current economy contributes to employees working longer hours, coming to work when sick and packing a lunch to eat at the desk, the office can become a “bacteria cafeteria.”

Do you clean your desk before you eat or snack at the desk? The ADA survey also found that more than 75 percent of workers “only occasionally” clean their desks before eating and 20 percent never do. Eating lunch at your desk can cause a bug-infested keyboard because microscopic food crumbs encourage the growth of millions of bacteria. Poor personal hygiene, such as not washing your hands after going to the restroom, can also contribute to the spread of bacteria in the workplace.

Taking Preventive Measures

Employers may be able to reduce absenteeism by encouraging employees to regularly clean often-touched work items and surfaces.

Keyboards. Commercially available disinfecting wipes get rid of bacteria contaminants on keyboards and computer mice. Look for ones that remove dirt, dust, dander and biological contaminants. Be sure to check with your Information Technology Department for recommendations on which products to use, as wet materials may interfere with keyboard functionality. For shared computer keyboard use, consider an antimicrobial computer keyboard, which contains silver ions are embedded into the plastic to resist bacteria. If this option is not available, sanitize the shared computer keyboard before you use it. To help remind yourself to clean items regularly, schedule an e-mail reminder to alert you periodically.

Desktop Items. Commercial disinfectant wipes effectively reduce germs and should be readily available on every desktop. Make a habit of wiping down the entire desk and desktop items (phone, light switches, handles, etc.) at the beginning and end of each day, as well as before eating at the desk. Although people tend to use one wipe on consecutive surfaces, this can spread bacteria from one location to another. Studies recommend using one wipe for one application on one surface, then discarding.

Hand Washing. According to the Mayo Clinic, frequent hand washing offers one of the best ways to avoid getting sick and spreading illness. It requires only soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

When washing hands with soap and water, lather well. Rub your hands vigorously for at least 20 seconds. Remember to scrub all surfaces, including the backs of your hands, wrists, between your fingers and under your fingernails. Rinse well, dry your hands with a clean or disposable towel or air dryer, and if possible, use the towel to turn off the faucet.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers, which don’t require water, are an excellent alternative to soap and water. Be sure to choose a commercially prepared hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Apply enough of the product to the palm of the hands to wet completely and rub hands together, covering all surfaces, for up to 25 seconds or until dry.


Take precautions to protect yourself and your staff from contagious diseases. A few simple steps can substantially reduce the risk of disease transmission from computer and office equipment.


  1. CDC. Norovirus: technical fact sheet. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services, CDC; 2006. Available at
  2. CDC. A list of cleaning products effective against norovirus approved by the Environmental Protection Agency is available at
  3. Gerba, Charles, University of Arizona, 2006.
  4. Mayo Clinic. Hand Washing Do’s and Don’ts.
  5. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: Norovirus Outbreak in an Elementary School — District of Columbia, February 2007.
  6. Po-Liang Lu, L. k Siu, Tun-Chieh Chen, Ling Ma, Wen-Gin Chiang, Yen-Hsu Chen, Sheng-Fung Lin and Tyen-Po Chen. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and Acinetobacter baumannii on computer interface surfaces of hospital wards and association with clinical isolates. BMC Infectious Diseases 2009, 9:164doi:10.1186/1471-2334-9-164.
  7. Reinberg, Steven. Stomach Flu Spread By Contaminated Computer Keyboards, 2007.
  8. Rutala WA, White MS, Gergen MF, Weber DJ. Bacterial contamination of keyboards: efficacy and functional impact of disinfectants. Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol 2006;27:372–7.

This article appears in the September 2010 issue of Western City
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