Gross! A computer cleaner dishes the dirt

An insider's view of the dirty world of office computers

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 in Canada 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. What follows is an edited transcript of her conversation with us.

How did you get started as a computer cleaner?

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 center?" So I've been doing it for several years.

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

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.

So how do you clean it?

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.

How often should this happen?

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.

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