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November 2020

[UPDATE] Is your fingerprint scanner making you sick?

Written by Nathalie Leblond
Workplace Hygiene, Hygiene and COVID-19

I wrote the original version of this blog in February this year, making reference to the fact that when my husband started a new job, he quickly came down with a tummy bug that was afflicting colleagues in the office. Looking back it feels like a lifetime ago: there is no mention of COVID-19/ Coronavirus in the entire post! 

Back then, my thoughts had immediately gone to the risks of cross-contamination in a shared workspace (read our blog on the 7 most common germs to catch at work for more on that) and then more specifically to a possible culprit: the fingerprint scanner, and looking back it feels like a lifetime ago: there is no mention of COVID-19/ Coronavirus in the entire post!

10 months later and our hygiene concerns around biometrics are still valid, although instead of worrying about the transmission of the common cold, flu, or tummy bug, we are now worried about the potential spread of COVID-19.

Viruses and Bacteria on surfaces:

At that stage, my point of reference was a study conducted in a hospital setting measured bacterial flora on the fingerprint surface of the biometric fingerprint scanners used in the hospital. The study found that 46% (nearly half!) of the samples taken were culture positive and that Coagulase-negative Staphylococcus species (CoNS) was the most common organism isolated from the samples. You can read more about the other unpleasant samples taken from the scanner in the original post.

The study concluded that biometric fingerprinting devices are prone to transmitting disease-causing microorganisms indirectly from one person to another. Whilst this study was performed in a hospital, the conclusion is just as applicable to any hard-surfaces that come into contact with multiple hands, such as the scanners in offices, banks and other access-controlled areas.

Coronavirus on surfaces:

There have also been numerous studies done in the last 10 months to establish how long the Coronavirus can remain active on hard surfaces, and reports list anything from hours to days, depending on the surface and the conditions. Because fingerprint recognition requires the users to touch the sensor, the contamination level of this surface is potentially as high as that of a door handle or any other frequently touched surface, and it can act as a medium to pass the virus via contact just the same as any other commonly touched surfaces.

In an article on fingerprint recognition under COVID-19, the website biometrics.com observed that “fingerprint recognition is a secure and convenient technology that has become common and widespread, not only in smartphones but in our everyday lives as well. However, the recent global outbreak of COVID-19 is raising questions about how safe using fingerprint authentication really is as touching the sensors can potentially spread viruses.

A study on biometric fingerprint identity verification for entry screening at border control came to the conclusion that their current fingerprinting procedure is associated with a risk of infection transmission, but that simple hygienic measures - such as disinfecting sensor surfaces with alcohol - can considerably lower the possibility of virus transmission, if not completely remove it.

Mitigating circumstances?

However, I think it’s worth noting that fingerprint recognition sensors have a very small contact area, the pressure applied is minimal, and the duration of touch is generally under one second, making the risk of virus transmission significantly lower than that of other hard surfaces, such as the photocopier, door handles or shared office desks and workspaces.

Because office users do share common areas and objects, implementation of a risk management strategy for office colleagues is necessary and should form part of your workplace COVID-19 plan. You can read more about the legal requirements for workplaces during the pandemic here. You should also think about regular cleaning and sanitising of office equipment.

Staying safe at work:

Measures that should be taken include temperature screening when coming into work and taking turns to work from home. Coupled with rigorous hand hygiene practices, social distancing and mask-wearing, biometrics may even help contain the transmission of viruses by allowing only a limited number of authorized people to enter common areas (and assuming the devices are cleaned regularly).

The above measures, combined with hand sanitising stations near each bank of desks so that you could sanitise your hands once you had safely deposited all your belongings, would go a long way in ensuring the safety of office workers from cross-contamination of every sort.

As the experts in Hygiene, Initial consultants are trained in spotting this sort of user requirement and can offer practical solutions (such as mobile sanitizer stands and techno hygiene solutions) to real workplace hygiene requirements.

Download our Office Hand Hygiene Posters as a reminder to office colleagues on how to stay hygienic in the workplace. Subscribe to our blog for regular hygiene insights.

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Nathalie Leblond

Nathalie Leblond

I joined Rentokil Initial South Africa in 2004 as the PA to the MD, and after 6 months maternity leave I re-joined the Company in 2009 as the Marketing Co-ordinator for Rentokil. I'm now the Marketing Communication Manager for Rentokil Initial. I'm still terrified of cockroaches (Americana's only!) but the rest of the creepy crawlies we deal with don't really bug me (see what I did there?), so I guess I'm in the right industry! I am passionate about what we do here at Rentokil Initial and also write for our Hygiene Blog, which can be found at blog.initial.co.za, and our Ambius blog - https://www.ambius.co.za/blog. Life outside of Rentokil Initial mostly revolves around my daughter, who has just turned twelve, and my husband (who is a bit older). I love living in Cape Town and wouldn't trade living here for anywhere else in the world.

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