Penny Wise and Pound Foolish

Faced with growing reports of sanitation-related illness outbreaks, special events organizers and local governments continue to quibble over providing hand-wash stations for public use

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If you open a restaurant or operate any business, you are almost certainly required to provide restrooms for your guests or workers. That means both a toilet to handle the waste and a sink with soap and running water so users can wash up afterward.

But if you organize a county fair, manage a remote workplace – like a construction site – or drive a food vending vehicle, adequate toilets are a suggestion and hand-washing facilities, well that’s just a frill you can choose to offer the public if you want.

A public health battle in Pima County, Ariz., once again raises a blatant double standard over when it’s necessary or optional to provide sanitation to protect the public and workers. And it points to the uphill battle faced by portable restroom operators who promote hand-wash stations and hand sanitizers as a way for customers to improve sanitary conditions.

In Pima County, the board of health proposed a code requirement that food truck vendors provide hand sanitizers for their customers and that special events provide one portable hand-wash station for every five restrooms rented.

 

BRING YOUR OWN SANITIZER

“Hand-washing is probably the single most important thing you can do to prevent illness, and we thought this would be an idea to promote … that would lead to better health for all of us,’’ the health department’s Brad Brumm said in a media account. “Food festivals where there’s lots of people and food and portable toilets – and not adequate places to wash your hands – really have the potential for bad consequences.’’

Pima County elected officials would have none of it. “People who want to wash will have the common sense to carry their own hand sanitizer,’’ one supervisor remarked as the plan was shot down unanimously. Members of the board of supervisors said they were worried about how small fairs and festivals would be affected by the added cost of providing sinks.

We’ve all been to public events and reluctantly used portable restrooms when no sanitary clean-up options are offered. If we don’t have the foresight to carry sanitizer with us at all times, we’re faced with the dilemma of using the bathroom and walking away with the potential to spread dangerous pathogens. I don’t know about you, but my mother told me over and over again as a little boy, “Wash your hands after you go to the bathroom!’’

Why is it OK to scold the general public for not carrying hand sanitizer at a fair or a festival, while at the same time closely regulating the fast-food restaurant down the street to make sure they keep their bathrooms sparkling clean? I don’t get it, and neither does Ben Chapman, Ph.D. and a food safety specialist at the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension Service.

 

HIGHER STANDARDS

Chapman, writing a post on his “barfblog,’’ (http://barfblog.foodsafety.ksu.edu) recounts the litany of cases of illness outbreaks linked to fairs and festivals, including one in his own back yard. At the North Carolina State Fair, 12 people were sickened, including seven children who were hospitalized in an E. coli outbreak.

Chapman believes minimal regulation of food trucks and fair organizers as proposed in Arizona is a fine thing. But he believes event planners should choose to meet higher standards.

“If I ran a food festival, I’d be afraid of an outbreak leading to bad press,’’ Chapman said. “Look at it this way: The type of festival I want to go to as a patron is a place where someone doesn’t need to be regulated. They should already have the mindset that what would be bad for our festival is 700 people getting sick here.’’

Chapman makes a good point. Smart event planners should already be ordering hand-wash stations, and I know many are. But I’ve heard plenty of stories from PROs to know that not enough event organizers are heeding Chapman’s advice. They scrimp on portable sanitation, not realizing what risks they are exposing themselves to. Chapman has a warning for event planners who are looking to get by on the cheap.

“We’ve seen outbreaks with temporary food events and state fairs where there are animal contact areas. If I’m an operator with one of these events, I can’t hide behind the argument that I didn’t know there might be pathogens,’’ he said. In a courtroom with lawyers, judge and jury, ignorance over the basics of sanitation won’t cut it, he said.

 

MAKING THE CASE

Talking with Chapman reveals a powerful argument you can make to event organizers who are being penny wise and pound foolish when it comes to protecting their patrons: You may never know how many customers you’re turning off by not providing hand-wash facilities.

“I look at it that if I can’t do what I need to wash my hands, I just won’t go there,’’ Chapman said. “A segment of the population feels that way.’’ Are organizers willing to skimp on sanitation at the risk of losing a percentage of their visitors next year?

It’s pretty simple for Chapman. While it’s impossible to prevent every illness outbreak, events should perform due diligence for public safety … and that includes providing hand-washing options.

“Making people sick is really bad for business,’’ Chapman concluded.

 

ALL SIGNS POINT TO INDY

Another year has flown by and it’s time to get together for the Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo International. I hope to see you all at the Indiana Convention Center starting with Education Day, Feb. 27. I know you’ll be busy attending seminars, checking out the exhibit hall and meeting with old friends and colleagues. But I hope you take a few minutes to track me down and say hello. Just ask anyone wearing a COLE Publishing shirt at the Expo and they can find me.

There’s nothing more important to my job as editor of PRO than meeting contractors and learning about the challenges you face on a daily basis. Your ideas and suggestions help us keep this magazine relevant to an ever-changing industry.



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