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Creating Health-Conscious Workplaces with Antimicrobial Surfaces

Germs are everywhere, a fact of life. Also known as microbes, bacteria, “bugs” and now even “superbugs,” various types of germs live within us, on us and all around us. Many of them keep us healthy and alive, but others pose threats to our wellbeing if our bodies cannot manage them.

Health-Conscious Work Environments

As knowledge work becomes more collaborative and mobile, many office environments are evolving to become mostly shared, “we” spaces versus individually assigned work settings. At the same time, the costs of absent workers and health care are significant concerns for many employers. As a result, antimicrobial agents—i.e., technologies that either kill or slow the growth of microbes—are gaining relevance in the workplace as an option to reduce the impact of germs on frequently touched surfaces, such as worksurface edges and adjustment mechanisms.

With nearly 35% of the global workforce expected to be mobile in 2013, workplaces today need to provide a variety of places for people to work, giving people choice and control over where and how they work. But as employees use shared workstations throughout the day, there is also increased need to minimize sharing harmful bacteria. About 80% of infections can be transmitted by touch. One study found more than 10 million germs on the average desk. According to another study, 72% of people report going to work despite being sick.

72% of people report going to work despite being sick.
Lancaster University / Elipse Insurance

Germs in the workplace 

As workers move through shared workstations, research suggests an increasing need to prevent them from sharing harmful bacteria.

  • One study found more than 10 million germs on the average desk.
  • According to another study, 72% of people report going to work despite being sick.
  • About 80% of infections can be transmitted by touch.
  • Workers in open plan offices reported taking 63% more sick days than those in private offices, according to a 2011 research project.

The transition from assigned “I spaces” to shared “we spaces” globally has created opportunity for the intelligent, strategic use of antimicrobials in support of wellbeing.

Deploying antimicrobial materials provides one potential way to reduce microbe levels. A wide range of antimicrobial technologies is available in a wide variety of consumable and durable products today, from household cleaners and toothpaste to clothing and toys. Because there’s such a complex array of antimicrobial options, it’s important to understand the underlying technologies and their potential applications for workplace environments.



Antimicrobials are generally thought of as chemical technologies, but they can include radiation and surface textures, as well. They affect microorganisms by inhibiting or altering any or all of four cellular functions:

1) Cell wall synthesis
2) Protein synthesis
3) Cell membrane functions
4) Nucleic acid synthesis (genetic code)

Many cellular activities under each of these four functions can be targeted by an antimicrobial. Many researchers believe that targeting multiple functions decreases the risk of a microorganism developing resistance.



The transition from assigned “I spaces” to shared “we spaces” globally has created opportunity for the intelligent, strategic use of antimicrobials in support of wellbeing. Among the array of antimicrobial options, several have potential for work environments.

Metal and metal ions

Silver and copper have a long history as antimicrobials, as evidenced by Greek, Egyptian and Roman accounts as far back as 2200 BC. Both metals were used to store and treat drinking water, and also made into antiseptic salve. The antimicrobial action for both elements is in the ionic form and can act in multiple ways. Silver is typically applied by adding silver ions to a carrier material, such as clay, which is in turn added to the base material. Copper is used in both the raw metallic form and as oxides added to base materials.

Botanical-based extracts

Many essential oils found in plants possess some level of antimicrobial action. Studies have shown that they attack microbes by making the cell membranes permeable. Bay, cinnamon, clove and thyme have been identified as the most potent types. The use of extracts in consumable products such as cleaners and wipes is well established, and the transition to durable material such as plastics is underway.

Surface topography

Certain surface topographies have been borrowed from nature as nonchemical antimicrobials. One of particular interest is Sharklet® which is a surface comprised of millions of microscopic diamonds arranged into a distinct texture based on natural sharkskin. Instead of killing microbes, the surface creates an inhospitable environment that inhibits their growth.

Additional technologies

There are many other antimicrobial technologies available in the market, and new ones are continually emerging. As research accelerates, knowledge on antimicrobials and their impacts is rapidly expanding and changing.



The use of antimicrobials can be challenging because it seems counter to improving materials chemistry. In principle, all antimicrobials should be “unsustainable” because they negatively affect another organism. This leads to the tension of managing individual health and community wellbeing.

The key to balancing this tension is making smart choices about how and where to use antimicrobials.


80% of infectious diseases can be transmitted by touch.



Most frequently touched surfaces feature antimicrobial protection killing 99% of bacteria. per nanonbiomatters testing


Getting smart about antimicrobials

To make informed and intelligent decisions, consider:

  • Composition—allchemical, naturally derived or plant-based?
  • Amount—appropriate or overkill?
  • Probability of touch—often or seldom?
  • Marketing claims—factbased or hype?


Selecting and applying an antimicrobial is a balancing act between the base materials, how they are processed and formed, the desired effectiveness and durability of the antimicrobial, and the ultimate product performance. Some technologies are added into the base material, others are applied as post-production sprays or coatings. These application methods, in turn, present lifecycle choices around managing the materials during application, in use and at end of life.


It’s easy to think that the objective of using an antimicrobial is to obliterate everything on a surface. Indiscriminate mass elimination of microbes, however, is unnecessary and even potentially harmful. As Dr. Michael Schmidt, professor and vice chairman of Microbiology and Immunology at Medical University of South Carolina, explains, the goal of deploying antimicrobial materials into the built environment is to lower the bio-load to a level at which the body can fight it off on its own. This creates the opportunity to have different antimicrobial levels and/or technologies for environments such as offices, where most people are healthy, and environments such as hospitals where people are sick and have compromised immune systems.

Probability of touch 

Because approximately 80% of infections can be transmitted through touch, the application of antimicrobials is well suited to shared spaces such as classrooms, public spaces and office environments for mobile workers. Some parts of workplace products are touched more frequently than others and this, in turn, creates higher bio-loads, which can increase the possibility of coming in contact with harmful germs. Applying antimicrobials only to the areas of the product that are touched most frequently—versus coating an entire product—is a balanced approach. In addition, it’s important to know that antimicrobial materials should not replace or decrease regular cleaning routines or good hygiene practices (e.g. hand washing, coughing into elbows, staying home when sick). They simply add another level of potential benefit by reducing germs in the workplace.

Fact-based information

Antimicrobials by definition have capabilities to kill or inhibit certain types of microbes, but claims of specific improvement of human health are very difficult to demonstrate. Antimicrobials are highly regulated by governmental organizations around the world. While different countries have different standards, most require that antimicrobials be registered and control the type of claims that can be made for a specific technology and/ or application. Pro and con attitudes toward antimicrobials can be extreme, so it’s important to rely on fact-based information versus assumptions or hype.



In scientific literature and mass-market media, there is a continuing stream of new information about microbes, antimicrobial use and the potential benefits as well as risks. As the research continues, it’s important to use factbased information to make informed and intelligent decisions about antimicrobials. Important aspects to keep in mind are the application, amount and probability of touch. It’s also important to differentiate facts from hype.

For several years, Steelcase has been exploring antimicrobial technologies and how they fit into the context of worker wellbeing, sustainability and productivity for employers. Findings indicate that reducing germs on shared surfaces through use of safe and effective antimicrobials can help organizations create cleaner, more health conscious work environments and that, in turn, may be a business benefit that warrants consideration.



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http://www.tufts.edu/med/apua/about_ issue/agents.shtml

Pejtersen, JH., et. al. (2011) “Sickness absence associated with shared and open-plan offices,” Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health.

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