Gross! A computer cleaner dishes the dirt

When a British study recently showed the average computer keyboard is dirtier than a toilet seat, Jacqueline Miller’s worst suspicions were confirmed.

Miller is a professional computer cleaner based out of Toronto who balances her time between educating business about IT sanitation and actually ridding them of germs herself. One of her big challenges is raising awareness that this is a problem. She said there’s a lack of research available to address the Canadian market specifically.

“We can guess that Canada is similar to the United States,” she says. “But even with Stats Canada, the most recent information I can get on the amount of sick time people take (due to illness) is from 2005. Do people not care about sick time?”

Miller offered an insider’s view of the dirty world of office computers with ComputerWorld Canada. What follows is an edited transcript of her conversation with us.

ComputerWorld Canada: How did you get started as a computer cleaner?

Jacqueline Miller: Back in the mid-80s – without saying I’m old or anything – I was in operations, and part of our responsibility was cleaning the computer room, because of dust and static. So you had to get the suction cups and lift the floor boards. Of course, computers really started coming in to offices in the mid 1990s, and part of my job then was training secretaries how to use a computer. Although they’ve now been around for a long time, no one really thought about that process of cleanliness, and it’s not until all the illnesses got passed around that people started questioning it. (Later), around 2000, there was an opportunity in a company I was doing some work for, again with the computer room. No one ever cleaned it, and the IT guys are just too busy, so a couple of us teamed up. We had to organize a little business, and from that point on there were phones and things there where they said, “Could you do the call centre?” So I’ve been doing it for several years.

CWC: How can you do a good job of cleaning keyboards and phones?

JM: It’s got to start at home, with washing your hands. You can’t disinfect a dirty surface. And people don’t know that. I’ve called Clorox and Lysol and all those companies, because if you look on the back of those products and it says it’s 98.999 per cent effective, that’s based on a thoroughly clean surface. So you can wipe your keyboard every day, every week, but if it’s not clean, you can’t maintain it.

CWC: So how do you clean it?

JM: I use a number of brushes, depending on the process. You can’t take forced air and spray it. That’s doesn’t clean it. This is also not about taking the keys off; you want to avoid that, because eventually the sides are going to wear. I tilt it to a garbage can and I brush so that I’m getting the bulk of crumbs and dust off. Then you switch sides and you do it again. Then I take the forced air. If it’s a keyboard that hasn’t been cleaned in a few years, there’s quite a bit of dust. Once you get all your loose stuff, you also have to do your keys, where you’re cleaning with a solution. I use something with 90 per cent or more alcohol. There’s pads out there called Das pads – Dasco sells them – and we use them a lot in the computer room. I spray my brushes and I scrub the keys with my brushes. Then I get in between the keys with a fine ruler-type object. You can see over time where I’m getting all the guck and discoloration. Once there’s no more discoloration I know it’s pretty thoroughly cleaned, so I spray it one more time. Then I take the disinfectant wipe and use that.

CWC: How often should this happen?

JM: It’s up to you as an individual and your use. For me, going into a company, I average every six months for regular customers. Some companies may not want to spend money on a second cleaning. They think they can do it themselves, and that’s fine too.

CWC: Without over-generalizing, is there a difference between the cleanliness of someone in one department and someone in another? For example, is there a difference between the IT department and the senior executives?

JM: IT guys are very defensive. They don’t like someone like me coming in and cleaning their stuff. They say they do it themselves. But a lot of times the companies will say, “No, everybody’s getting it done.” And they’re the filthiest. (laughs) I had one company out of town that had me speak to their IT guy, and he said to me, “Oh, I put mine in the dishwasher.”

CWC: The keyboard? JM: Yes. Who would even think to chance that? I said, “Well, I’d like to know how that works the next day.” And he said, “Oh no, it takes a while to dry out. It takes days, a week.” So what do you do in the meantime? I don’t know if he was messing with me or what, but I’ve read the same thing on the Internet. Maybe it’s a myth of some kind. But it’s stupid, because you’re going to chance watering your circuits, and they won’t work again.

CWC: What about gender differences?

JM: I’ve cleaned salesmen’s PCs, and they’re disgusting. They’re not even in the office most of the time. They’re out and about shaking hands, pumping gas, eating, all that stuff. And then they come back and they’re typing. And those keys – I remember one guy, after I cleaned phone, saying, “You switched my phone.” He was so sure it wasn’t the same one. Then you can get managers who have almost a spotless environment, and women who care enough to call me in who have filthy keyboards.

CWC: Does the situation ever get any better?

JM: I can clean some keyboards where they’re pretty good now. They don’t have the guck built up like they used to between the keys, or on the mouthpiece of a phone – the initial cleaning of a phone makes a big difference. The keyboard is what needs to be cleaned very often. You can always just wipe down your mouthpiece and handset. They don’t get as dirty as your keyboard, because people are eating over their keyboards.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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