A computer keyboard can be a dirty thing, often filled with crumbs that help make it a reservoir for disease-causing germs. Ironically, keyboards have been identified as vehicles for spreading diseases inside hospitals, in particular.

But now, there seems to be increasing interest among IT vendors in doing something about the plague of dirty keyboards.

For instance, Aten Technology Inc. in Irvine, Calif., this month said it has begun applying antimicrobial nanocoating to its KVM switch devices, which are commonly used by multiple IT workers in data centres. The KVM switches — the acronym stands for keyboard, video and mouse — lets users control various systems from a single unit.

“The cost associated with putting this technology on our products is so negligible that it makes sense to do it without raising the cost of the product,” said Keith Renty, Aten’s business and product development manager.

Earlier this year, Seal Shield Corp. in Jacksonville, Fla., introduced what it described as a dishwasher-safe keyboard and began marketing it to hospitals. Seal Shield CEO Bradley Whitchurch said Dell Inc. is now offering the keyboard, which sells for about US$50, as an option in its health care product line.

Whitchurch believes that interest in washable keyboards will expand into other facilities where end users share computers, such as hotels and libraries. “We feel that over time, as the public becomes more educated on this issue, every computer keyboard is a target for replacement,” he said.

In hospitals, “computer keyboards are vectors for disease,” said Elizabeth McCaughey, a former lieutenant governor of New York who heads the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths, a New York-based nonprofit group that advocates for cleaner and safer hospitals.

McCaughey said keyboards can help spread Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), a type of bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics and can cause skin infections as well as pneumonia and infections of the bloodstream or surgical wounds.

MRSA is common and can be found in office settings, but McCaughey said there is no real benefit to taking special precautions with keyboards used outside of hospitals, because people also touch shared objects such as doorknobs, banisters and bathroom surfaces. “Unless you are going to coat every surface in your work environment with an antimicrobial nanocoating, there’s no reason to focus on the keyboard,” she said.

Charles Gerba, an environmental microbiologist and professor at the University of Arizona, has studied germs in the workplace and produced a series of entertaining and scary findings, such as the fact there are more germs on a typical ATM than there are on a public restroom door. Gerba has ranked telephones, keyboards, mouses and fax machines as the germiest objects in offices.

The more a device is touched by different workers, the more likely it will transmit a disease to an unsuspecting victim, said Gerba, who advises people to use disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizers, or just remember to wash their hands, when sharing equipment.

“We have jumped to the Electronic Age without bringing hygiene with us — that’s what has happened,” he said. “You learn a lot about people’s habits by turning their computer equipment upside down. It’s amazing. I can see what they’ve been eating for the last year.”

Another thing Gerba said he has found is that women typically have more germs on their keyboards and work surfaces than men do. That’s because women “tend to eat more at their desk,” he said, adding that female workers are two times more likely than their male counterparts to eat over their keyboards. But, he was quick to add, women also tend to be healthier eaters.

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