Workplace hygiene: Is your office kitchen a health hazard?Danger lurks in office kitchens that are not kept clean. Photo: Shutterstock

Workplace hygiene: Is your office kitchen a health hazard?

You are prepared for a hellishly busy working day. Lunch is packed so it is just a matter of popping it in the work fridge and reheating at lunchtime. Right?

Wrong. Your plans go awry when you stroll into the communal kitchen. Instead of a clean, well-ordered space, you are confronted with a stack of congealed coffee cups and crusty cutlery.

Inside the microwave is a Picasso-like blend of various foods and the fridge holds specimens of long-forgotten, decomposing lunches.

Dirty dishes in the office sink. Photo: Shutterstock
This is not what your colleagues want to see in the kitchen. Photo: Shutterstock

The inconvenience or gross factor pales into insignificance compared with the potential health impact. The humble office kitchen could be a real work danger that could make someone seriously unwell.

Each year in Australia there are about four million cases of gastroenteritis due to food poisoning which occurred at home or work, according to Clare Collins, a professor of nutrition and dietetics at the University of Newcastle.

The cost due to medical care and lost work productivity is estimated at $1.3 billion. Safe food-handling skills could have prevented most cases, Professor Collins said.

“You get food poisoning when you consume bacteria in foods that have not been stored, handled or cooked correctly,” she said.

“In a dirty kitchen, the problem will be if these poorly treated foods come into contact with your food due to the use of dirty utensils or an out-of-control fridge.”

Sick emoji montage for office kitchen health article.
Lost productivity and medical expenses related to food poisoning cost $1.3 billion a year in Australia. 

Gastroenteritis, commonly called gastro, is an infection or inflammation of the digestive system. Symptoms include vomiting and diarrhoea. The severity can range from feeling uncomfortable to being hospitalised or, in some cases, death.

A further $6 billion is lost because of delays caused by employees avoiding dirty areas, such as heading out for coffee instead of making one in a dirty kitchen.

Research by Initial Hygiene in 2013 found British most office kitchens were dirtier than a toilet. Because office kitchens were busy, they were a greater risk for cross-contamination.

In Australia, state and territory health departments conduct surveillance for between 10 and 15 different diseases that may be transmitted by contaminated food preparation equipment or surfaces, or through the consumption of contaminated water.

“The problem is that contaminated food can look, smell or even taste OK,” Professor Collins said.

So what can be done to keep workers happy and well?

Separate the raw and the cooked

Do you grab groceries and store them in the work fridge before taking them home in the evening?

It is essential to store raw food separately from cooked food to avoid cross-contamination, Professor Collins says.

Raw food should be stored on the bottom refrigerator shelves to avoid drips coming into contact with cooked food.

Foods should also be covered with a tight-fitting lid, which could also be plastic wrap or foil.

If in doubt, throw it out

Avoid the risk of food poisoning by throwing away dubious-looking food or out-of-date condiments.

Professor Collins said workers needed to be aware of the temperature danger zone.  Bacteria grow the fastest between 5C (fridge temperature) and 60C, the temperature at which steam rises.

Dirty dishes in a sink or food scraps left at room temperature are in the danger zone and high risk for harbouring the bacteria that cause food poisoning.

Check expiry dates of food in the office fridge. If in doubt, throw it out. Photo: Shutterstock
Check expiry dates of food in the office fridge. If in doubt, throw it out. Photo: Shutterstock

Keep it clean

Appliances such as the refrigerator or microwave should be cleaned regularly using hot soapy water.

In addition, keep the refrigerator at the optimum chilling level which is a temperature lower than or equal to 4C.

Office fridges should be cleaned regularly. Photo: File
Office fridges should be cleaned regularly and kept at a temperature equal to or lower than 4C. Photo: File

Ditch dish cloths

Dish cloths can be a source of harmful bacteria and should be replaced or sterilised regularly.

An easy way to sterilise dish cloths is to cover them with a little water and then heat in a microwave until steam rises.

Professor Collins also recommended using paper towels in place of tea towels if the cloth version could not be cleaned or replaced regularly.

It was a good idea to make a hand-washing schedule part of work orientation to keep the spread of bacteria at bay.

“You can prevent the spread of many germs in the workplace by careful hand-washing,” she says. “If you do not have a air hand-dryer, then use paper towels.”

More information and printable guides are available at the Hand Hygiene Australia website.

Tea towels in the office kitchen. Photo: File
Consider introducing paper towels if tea towels cannot easily be laundered. Photo: File

Washing-up 101

Professor Collins said a dishwasher was the most effective way of cleaning dishes.

If this was not available,  a hot soapy hand wash followed by a hot rinse and air-drying in a rack was the way to go.

Pitch in

In the US, one man took on the task off cleaning and detoxifying the office fridge.

He documented the daunting process heroically, using a gas mask and gloves designed to be worn during nuclear, biological and chemical warfare to deal with a fridge that was like “a morgue for casseroles”.

Negotiating an effective roster system among staff to keep a kitchen clean is the most practical strategy. This includes washing up, cleaning benches, other surfaces, floors and appliances.

Throw away old or unlabelled food including containers. Organise a roster to wash tea towels or arrange for a laundry company to do them for you. Replace tea towels with the paper version if washing is not an option.

So folks, clean up after yourselves, don’t touch other people’s stuff and remember to wash your hands. Pretty basic really.

Edited image to show a reminder note about cleaning up the office kitchen. Photo: Shutterstock
Don’t let your office fridge become “a morgue for casseroles”. Photo: Shutterstock
  • Tick office cleaning off the to-do list by connecting with a cleaner through our partners at Oneflare.

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