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The Restroom Police Get High-Tech Help

Health: Dirty hands have become a national threat, the CDC says. Now a detection system will get a trial run to nab employees who do not wash after a pit stop.


NEW YORK — Restaurants now have a way to nab employees who don't stop by the sink and lather up before leaving the bathroom.

An infrared detection system that alerts employers when workers leave the restroom without washing up will be tested at the Tropicana Hotel in Atlantic City, N.J., and the William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, Texas.

The device, on display Monday at a restaurant trade show in Chicago, works like this: Employees wear a badge that triggers an infrared sensor whenever they enter the restroom. A second sensor at the soap dispenser activates if they remain at the sink for at least 15 seconds.

An electronic record is kept each time an employee uses the restroom, noting whether each worker stopped at the sink. Hand-washing scofflaws also bear a blinking badge if they skip the soap.

"Today lots of people are getting sick, lots of people are dying," said Glenn Cohen, president of Net / Tech, the Red Bank, N.J., company that makes Hygiene Guard. "Hand-washing is the most important thing you can do to control infectious disease."

Dirty hands have become a national health threat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 40 million Americans get sick, and about 80,000 die each year from hand- and airborne bacteria, such as hepatitis. The agency puts the cost of treating infected patients at $4.5 billion each year.

Various studies have found that Americans often skip the sink on their way out of a public restroom.

Researchers at the University of Iowa Hospital found that only 3 out of 5 health care workers in the intensive-care unit washed their hands, while American Society for Microbiology researchers found that just 60% of those using restrooms in New York City's Penn Station washed up.

But while restaurateurs may like getting the dirt on workers, union officials are concerned about employers invading worker privacy.

"I'm laughing at the absurdity of the whole thing, people walking around with beeping tags. What's next, a camera in the bathroom?" said Robert McDevitt, president of Local 54 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union in Atlantic City, whose members include Tropicana food service workers.

The 1,624-room Tropicana hotel and casino plans to try out the system on its kitchen staff and possibly expand it to include workers at its eight restaurants.

The 10-day trial at the 200-bed Beaumont Medical Center begins Saturday.

Net / Tech hasn't installed a single system yet, but Cohen says that since he started displaying it Saturday at the National Restaurant Assn. conference, several "household name" fast-food chains have expressed an interest.

"We think that we've really come up with something that's going to help save lives and prevent airborne illnesses," said Dan Richard, a Net / Tech director.

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