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                   Saturday, February 4, 2012 - 1:30PM CST

Contagious illness: an avoidable problem in modern-day America

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If you know me, you know I'm no 'neat freak'. I am however a 'germ freak', for the plain and simple reason that I hate getting sick. Who doesn't, you might say? Well, you'd think most people wouldn't, but you wouldn't derive that from the lack of some very simple things that society as a whole (and many people individually) could be doing to reduce the transmission of infectious diseases.

I don't view common viruses like colds, flus (stomach or respiratory) as simple facts of life that we all get and have to deal with. They are preventable, and could be nearly wiped out, if we would just start implementing some simple precautions. They are like many of the infectious diseases in third-world countries that are being eliminated in some places simply by educating the people on proper personal sanitation. Common illnesses we deal with here have absolutely no benefit (IE, you don't get any immunity to future infections) and all they do is cost everyone time and money, not to mention the needless suffering.

I'll just list a few of my pet peeves in the realm of sanitation, and my thoughts on each:

  • Bathroom equipment and design - two main things here:
    • Touchless (sensor triggered) devices (faucets, flush valves, soap/paper towel dispensers) should be mandatory code in bathrooms, particularly all public, retail, commercial and workplace restrooms. While I could see the cost prohibitiveness for homes, there's no excuse for these not to be in every shared restroom. To our credit, this has been improving - but still woefully inadequate. It makes no sense to have to touch a faucet handle AFTER washing your hands, the same handle touched by every single person's unwashed hand that has used it. You can get around this sometimes by using your forearm or wrist to turn the water on/off, or in some cases a paper towel if the dispenser is within reach. The time-release faucets that require holding down the handle or repeatedly pressing it to keep water flowing should be banned in building codes, plain and simple. Either fine violators or make them touch every handle and device at the end of each day, before the restroom is cleaned! Let them also be infected with whatever bug was exposed to every person who used that restroom that day.
    • Doors should open toward the OUTSIDE and should never have a knob you have to grab and/or turn. Again, this is such a simple thing that it's mind-boggling why it isn't standard code. An inward-opening door means you have to grab the handle to leave the room, coming into literal contact with every single person who has used that restroom AFTER you've washed your hands. The chances that at least one person touched that handle in the past day who didn't wash their hands or is sick is 100%! If the door opens outward, you're at least grabbing the handle BEFORE washing your hands, and you can open the door with your shoulder/foot/forearm to leave. Again, such a simple and no-cost thing that there's no reason it shouldn't be required code.
  • Stay HOME if you're sick!

    This is the big one. If we would start making this standard practice, think of how fewer all of us would get sick every year. It's a no brainer! With the exception of close family members at home, virtually all person-to-person disease transmission happened because someone who was sick (and in most cases knew it at the time) went to work/school/church, rode a bus/airplane/train/cruise, went out to eat, went to a movie, or did anything else that put them into close contact with other people. Now I know that sometimes these situations can't be avoided - but the truth is, many times, I'd say even most times, they can.

    It's why we have sick days to begin with. If you come to work sick to save your sick days/appear to be a dedicated worker/whatever your reason is, you are directly responsible for other people in the office getting sick and having to miss work. Not only should you feel bad about that, I think you should have to pay a penalty in some way! At the very least, the others around you who get sick as a direct result of your choice to come to work should be able to use YOUR sick days to cover their resulting absences. If you don't have any sick days left, they should be able to take your vacation days! It's not their fault they got sick, it wasn't just a 'fact of life', the sole reason they got sick was because of your conscious, negligent choice to come to work when you KNEW you were contagious. Of course, if you took reasonable measures to avoid exposing your ailment to others in the workplace (IE, by leaving as soon as you started feeling ill and staying home until you were no longer contagious), then you would not be held responsible. But if you stay at work, and/or then come in the next day with a fever and/or other symptoms that make it obvious you were still contagious, you should be held accountable for that when it results in the disease spreading.

    If your manager or boss compels you to not use sick days when you need them, that should be a federal crime equal to other workplace offenses such as harassment or embezzlement. When your actions result in the propagation of a disease to 30 people and then to 1000 people from those 30, then to 40,000 cases from those 1,000, directly resulting in millions of dollars in lost productivity and tens of thousands of people suffering, someone needs to pay!

    There is no more flagrant example of this problem than in the retail and restaurant business. Things like busy cashiers at Wal-Mart with miserable colds and carhops at Sonic running to the bathroom to be sick in between orders (yes, I've witnessed both). These situations are probably more the fault of strict management than the employee, but beyond inexcusable - and someone should pay for the very real economic losses that result.

  • Keypads and handrails: Using your knuckles to press keypad buttons (at store checkouts, ATMs, security systems, etc) can not only keep you from picking up germs on your fingertips (where they are most likely to come in contact with your face), but can prevent you from *leaving* germs if you're sick. Use your shirt/jacked sleeve to grab handrails and door handles. Again, if you know you're contagious, it's borderline criminal to be going to the store/ATM/etc to begin with if you really don't need to, but unfortunately I know sometimes that can't be avoided. At the very least, use hand sanitizer and try to touch as few objects as possible to limit how many of your virus/bacteria cells you leave behind.
All of these measures are so simple and most so cheap that it's perplexing why we don't do more to push them as standard practice and even law. Imagine instead of getting 2 or 3 colds a year, you get 1 every 5 years. Imagine *never* getting a stomach or respiratory flu. Entirely possible if everyone used common sense and consideration for others when coming down with a contagious illness.

Dan, I agree with you 100% on this. I work in IT, supporting over 650 people where I work. In the past, I've gotten sick from someone whose snotty cold was all over their peripherals! So now I am paranoid all the time about picking up a bug. I live with a bottle of antibacterial goo in my office and slather that stuff on liberally after visiting a user's PC. This year I've been pretty lucky. The stomach thing went around the office, and I did not get it. I kept my routine of rinsing and gooping my hands. I too wonder why the batheroom doors are designed the way they are. You go through the trouble of cleaning your hands only to touch the door knob or handle to leave!
- Posted by John Citron from Haverhill, MA

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