Thursday, April 20, 2006

Wash Up, Doc?

The next time that you're sitting in your doctor's office, ask yourself this question: Has she washed her hands since examining her last patient? Better yet, ask your doctor that question: The odds are less than one in three that she has.

How about the harried waitress who plucks your morning toast out of the toaster at the diner, or the prep cook who makes your midday Caesar's salad? According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as many as 1,400 people die each year as a result of food poisoning that can be traced directly to poor restaurant hygiene. The chances that you might get sick are frighteningly higher—roughly one in fifteen Americans in any given year will spend a miserable day or night that a little soap and water could have prevented.

From the outset, employees have been concerned that the infrared badge technology can reveal private and potentially embarrassing information, particularly about time spent in the bathroom. That concern seems almost quaint today, given the fact that infrared badge technology is being integrated into systems that are specifically designed to monitor employee hygiene habits.

You might think that the bathroom is the last bastion of privacy, a scrutiny-free zone that even employers can't invade. That may once have been true, but the potential for ruinously expensive litigation is pushing employers to overcome even the most basic concerns. Even if no one actually dies, a wave of food poisoning can ruin a restaurant; likewise, a malpractice suit resulting from the death of a patient due to poor hygiene can cost a hospital tens of millions of dollars. When numbers like that are tossed around, employers have a hard time justifying a continued respect for employee privacy.

In the spring of 1997, a New Jersey-based company, Net/Tech International, Inc., introduced the Hygiene Guard system for use in food service and health care facilities. The system uses sensors in employee restrooms, including sensors on soap dispensers and faucets, to make sure that employees engage in proper hygiene. The first system was installed at the Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City, with others soon following at George-town University Hospital and the Willam Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, Texas.

Like other infrared sensor systems, the restroom sensors are tied into a central network that maintains a log of each employee's adherence to proper hygiene procedures. If an employee leaves the bathroom without washing up, an entry is made in the employee's log on the main computer. The Hygiene Guard system can also be programmed to cause an employee's badge to start flashing if he fails to wash up properly. Data from the various logs can be sorted and printed out in a variety of ways, and preformatted reports are available that can be reviewed with specific employees or posted on an employee bulletin board.

A variant on the Hygiene Guard system is produced by a Weymouth, Massachusetts, company called UltraClenz, which manufactures the Pro-Giene system. UltraClenz works with employers to establish an appropriate hand-washing schedule, and then issues each employee an infrared badge that beeps and flashes each time the employee is supposed to wash his hands. When the employee goes into the restroom, sensors in the sink faucet, soap dispenser, and towel dispenser record whether the employee has actually used them. It's not a system designed to make employees feel particularly dignified:

  • The system instructs the employee on each step in sequence by both voice capacity as well as a LCD read out. The time interval for each function is determined by you and consists of the following functions; wetting hands, applying soap, lathering hands for a full twenty seconds, rinsing hands, and drying with a towel. The individual is recognized as having completed a protocol hand wash that is recorded and time stamped.
  • Pro-Giene will also, on a real-time basis, recognize employees who have or have not successfully completed the procedure or who may be overdue for their scheduled wash.

Given the limited attention that Congress has paid to employee privacy rights in general, it's not particularly surprising that there is no "Freedom from Employer Bathroom Monitoring Act." As we've seen, employer monitoring of our most basic communication—speech—is permitted when it is in the "ordinary course of business." While courts have shown some sympathy for the idea that certain spaces, even on business property, are off-limits to surveillance (e.g., bathrooms and locker rooms), it's hard to argue that the prevention of contamination and illness are not part of the "ordinary course of business" in a hospital or restaurant.

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