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WORK IN PROGRESS : Germ Warfare : A health inspector guards against unsanitary conditions at restaurants and swimming areas.

March 05, 1992|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Doris Miller's cubicle in the giant beige honeycomb of the Ventura County Administration Building is exactly like hundreds of other cramped cubicles. Hers is hemmed in by miles of beige steel filing cabinets, but considerably brightened by the pyramidal skylights above.

When she sits down at her desk, having driven in from her home in Thousand Oaks, it's 7:30 a.m. The good news, she quickly determines, is that of the hundreds of complaints the county receives each year, there's only one on her voice mail.

The bad news is she can't do anything about it. The person is complaining about the noise that an ice cream truck is making in the neighborhood, and noise is out of Miller's jurisdiction.

Miller is a health inspector for the state and the county. Of course, in the manner of all government bureaucracies, it's a bit more complicated than that.

Technically, she is a registered environmental health specialist with the state of California assigned to the Food Consumer Protection program (restaurants and stores). She also works for Recreational Health Inspection/Enforcement (swimming pools) within the Community Service Section of the Environmental Health Division of the county Resource Management Agency.

None of these designations begin to describe her job, however. She is a combination detective, psychologist, dictator, biologist, chemist, entomologist, mechanical engineer, plumber, diplomat, educator, hazardous waste expert, building code authority and land-use expert.

She is an enforcement officer who never sends anyone to jail and a guard who is invisible to those she protects. Miller is also a teacher with hundreds of classrooms and a student whose subject is constantly changing.

This isn't just anyone checking out the safety of food in your favorite restaurants.

For the next hour, Miller works on a curriculum she's developing to be used to train food service workers. Then it's time to head for "the field"--her one-twelfth of the county. Her territory includes 297 food services and 76 swimming pools, each requiring two routine, unannounced inspections per year.

Miller is a pretty blond woman with bright blue eyes and carefully applied makeup. The rigors of her job require her to dress more casually, perhaps, than she would choose--still, she hasn't given up completely on the possibility of glamour. She wears tinted glasses, stockings under her jeans, and colorful earrings. Her mantle of authority comes from her voice, which is self-assured and forceful.

Pulling a series of inspection forms out of a row of accordion files stuffed to the gills, she grabs her big black copy of the California Uniform Retail Food Facilities Law, along with a stainless steel clipboard and detachable thermometer. She goes to the parking lot where a county-issued, methane-powered car is waiting.

With a sense of fair play, she tries to time restaurant inspections at times other than peak hours. "That would give us a better chance to see how they really operate, of course, but we don't want to antagonize them," she says. "We like to think of ourselves as allies; it gives us a better working relationship."

Nevertheless, she couldn't have arrived at a worse time at her first stop--a fast-food outlet, part of a national chain. A pipe has broken in the back and a plumber is at work, while several employees mop furiously to stem the small flood. Unfazed, she merely checks to make sure that it isn't sewage coming from the pipe--in which case she would have closed the place immediately--and starts her inspection.

She prefers that a manager goes with her on a walk-through, because education is her real mission. This manager has the right idea and takes notes on a pad. Her face is completely impassive.

"Most people aren't thrilled to see us, but they don't show it," Miller says.

Like a detective at the scene of a crime, her eyes sweep the restaurant. She leaves no drawer unopened, no freezer unchecked. Are the surfaces smooth, non-absorbent and easily cleanable? Are all food containers six inches off the floor? Are the refrigerators cold enough? Do they have gunk on the gaskets?

Have the soda dispensers developed mold? Has the scoop handle to the ice been left so that employees' hands touch the ice? Are there hot water, soap, and paper towels at all the hand washing sinks? Are the garbage bins encrusted with slime and muck? These and dozens of other concerns claim her concentration.

She writes constantly as she moves, making notes of everything that needs attention, from easy requests such as closing a window that's letting in flies to more difficult demands such as changing all the low-flow faucets in the rest rooms so the water runs for at least 15 seconds. She tells them she'll be back in a month to check for compliance on that one.

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