Is Automation Putting You At Risk?

Is business automation putting you at risk? Find out how much harmful bacteria is on the self-service kiosks you use at the airport, movie theater, and more.

Sometimes industries can be shaken up by new innovations. The automation of our lives is the newest culture shock, with self-service kiosks popping up alongside service counters in places we all frequent, such as transportation stations, restaurants, grocery stores, and more.

Some have been vocally hesitant to adopt these changes, while advocates have pointed to solutions to their concerns. Techniques to avoid layoffs and retraining employees to do other tasks have been successful, and large-scale companies are beginning to roll out touch-screen technology and other methods of automation at an increased rate.

Every person who touches these screens will also leave behind one thing: bacteria. Germs are all around us, with some being harmful and others being helpful. Considering the risk for germ passing, is the convenience of automating even the smallest day-to-day tasks a healthy trend?

In this study, we referred to a bacterial surface culture analysis of self-service kiosks and data from the NSF International Household Germ Study. By comparing different self-service kiosks, we learned where bacteria are most likely to gather and the various types that are unique to each location.

How can we protect ourselves against the spread of harmful germs? Where are we most likely to interact with the more dangerous types of bacteria?

Read below to find out more.

Bacteria Are All Over the Place

Average Bacteria Levels of Self-Service Kiosks

In the context of this study, CFU, or colony forming units, refer to the number of microorganisms that are found on a particular surface. To establish our findings, we measured the microorganisms per square inch on each listed self-service kiosk.

When it comes to bacteria, movie theaters blow the other touch-screen competition out of the water, with more than 10 million CFU per square inch. Other locations around the theater are rife with germs, and the self-service ticketing counters are no exception. Some locations have fewer germs, such as airport kiosks, with bacteria levels at roughly 5% of the amount found at movie theater kiosks. Unfortunately, this difference should not be equated with safety: to put this into perspective, self-service kiosks at airports are still over 3,440 times dirtier than an average home toilet seat.

The major outlier in our data is fast-food kiosks. Measuring just 14 CFU per square inch, these touch screens harbor just a fraction of the germs as other public locations. A variety of reasons can explain this occurrence. Contrary to popular myth, fast-food chains are the gold standard when it comes to cleanliness, containing measurable bacteria to the restrooms and keeping it away from the dining areas and ordering stations.

At face value, this seems really promising. Unfortunately, even this small number equates to almost three times the amount of bacteria found on money. Our currency is one of the dirtiest things we come into contact with regularly and where the flu virus can live for over two weeks. With the fast exchange of money and the sheer number of people touching it, money becomes a home for bacteria that can lead to pneumonia and other infections.

As the fast-food industry moves toward automation at a rapid rate, the world will adapt to these changes. The self-service kiosks are brand new, clean, and ready for use. As some embrace the ease that automation can bring, others question the efficiency and consider the risks.

Where Are the Most Dangerous Bacteria?

Bacteria Types Found on Self-Service Kiosks

Some bacteria are innocuous and pose no real threat to good health. Other types can be extremely harmful and even deadly. It's important to know the difference and where it is most likely you will come into contact with more threatening strains.

The most dangerous bacteria type is known as gram-negative rods and include types native to pathogens and infections. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recognizes the concern that gram-negative bacteria pose to public health. According to Dr. Fauci, these bacteria will continue to be a "significant scientific challenge," as they are more likely to resist antibiotics and eventually create infections that are most harmful to humans.

These more dangerous germs run rampant in one particular location: grocery stores. Self-service kiosks in grocery stores have expedited the process of going food shopping, but they have become a haven for bacteria.

Where Do Dangerous Bacteria Live?

Percentage of Potentially Harmful Bacteria on Self-Service Kiosks

Grocery stores are often hotbeds for germs with carts, surfaces, checkout counters, and kiosks all riddled with various bacteria. As our survey shows, 99.3% of bacteria found on grocery store self-service kiosks are dangerous. So wash your produce, sanitize your shopping carts, and observe caution with grocery store kiosks. Small steps rooted in prevention can be the difference between keeping yourself protected against unexpected health issues and getting sick.

The bacteria that cover touch screens in public places exist at alarmingly high rates. Since we interact with these screens regularly, we are exposed to possible pathogens and types of bacteria that can make people sick.It is key that everyone focuses on prevention so that these germs do not grow into harmful diseases.

The level of harmful bacteria present on grocery store self-service kiosks – and all these kiosks in general – may be startling, but there are ways everyone can protect themselves. Carrying hand sanitizer and washing hands often are two ways to keep the germs away.

With Automation Inevitable, How Do We Adapt?

Self-service kiosks are a higher risk than otherwise believed. This technology must be regulated properly or the risks presented may harm us in the long run. With public health in mind, there must be safeguards in place and research should continue on the threat that public kiosks can pose.

Automation is the way of the future, and it is making certain aspects of our lives much easier. The more things conducted via computer, the more people can have access to certain resources. Financial decisions used to require a trip to the bank – now, finding information on credit cards and insurance has never been easier. In all instances of automation, each industry will adapt to the needs of the people.

Methodology

We conducted 23 total gram and stain culture swab tests across five touch-screen self-service kiosks (each surface was swabbed five times, except for airports, which were swabbed three times). Colony-forming units per swab were averaged for each surface type. Surfaces were chosen based on locations where automation has allowed consumers to use self-service kiosks to complete their business transactions. It is possible that with a larger sample size of surfaces, we could have gained more insight into CFU levels.

No statistical testing was performed, and claims listed above are based on means alone. As such, this content is exploratory.

Sources

Fair Use Statement

Feeling excited to share our findings on these unseen dangers of self-service? Feel free to share this information for noncommercial purposes. When you talk about our study, please cite us so other readers can find this information as well.

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