Discarding The Wet Ones

By Norman E. Kjono, February 16, 2005

From MSBNC News, February 16, 2005, "Is Your Workplace A Bacteria Cafeteria?"  about a germ tour of the "Today" show:

"Al Roker: We like to think we run a pretty clean show around here, but we found out that even we're not immune. We've all been there - dragging ourselves into work despite feeling more than a tad under the weather. Now, there's a name for what we've been doing, it's called presenteeism.

Paul Gibson of CCH Inc., a human resources consulting firm: Presenteeism is the situation where an employee shows up for work even though they're sick. What happens in that case is the employee is not as productive as he or she usually might be, and it also may create a risk of infecting co-workers with an illness when they show up for work with something like the flu or a cold.

Roker: Whether it's chronic or contagious, one study found showing up to work sick can be a pricey problem for employers - to the tune of $159 billion dollars a year. The average flu lasts five to six days, but employees typically take less than two days off and bring their germs back to work with them. . . . Working in close quarters compounds the problem, and is often the case in the newsroom here in studio 1-A each morning." (Underline added.) 

The news report is about Part II of NBC's series "Dirty America: Germs In the Workplace." A video clip is included with that news report. About germs in the work place, the segment reports "You should be afraid. Very afraid." 

The article includes symptoms of extreme fatigue, aches, or chills among those that tell you to stay home from work. Perhaps I date myself, but I was under the impression that folks who go to work when they are not necessarily feeling up to par are taking the initiative to do their job and make a living. Now they have a label for it, "Presenteeism." Turns out that folks suffering from that affliction are a health hazard -- at times Today reports even a deadly E-coli or meningitis menace -- to their co-workers, costing their employers $159 billion per year. That label would also apply to folks who have the unmitigated gall to go to work when feeling the body aches that accompany their status as Baby Boomer. Not to mention, of course, those of the feminine gender in who experience chills because of the normal body function of menopause and apparently still have the colossal arrogance to put their coworkers at risk by going to work when doing so. 

One should not show up at work when feeling extreme fatigue. That should be good news to Nordstom employees who successfully sued a few years ago to recover compensation for compulsory, nonpaid overtime. I guess Nordstrom never realized they were setting themselves up for a rampant outbreak of unbridled "Presenteeism" with their compulsory overtime policy. There's gotta be another lawsuit buried somewhere in that, this time for Nordstrom to recover the costs of reduced worker productivity imposed by rank and file employee Presenteeism. The liability theory could be that employees irresponsibly came to work while feeling extreme fatigue after completing compulsory overtime hours. The damage model would be based on estimated productivity lost due to fatigue, using University of California at San Francisco professor Stanton Glantz' SAMMEC II model for the alleged cost of tobacco use. Since that model considers no economic contributions by smokers, such as taxes paid, in calculating such "costs" it should be ideal. By similarly excluding employee contributions from the Presenteeism damages calculation all employees would come up with a negative productivity factor. Nordstrom could then apply that innovative damage model to require that all employees now pay for the privilege of occupying their desk or cubicle. Along the way a generous Attorney General who aspired to the Governor's mansion could "teach employers a stern lesson," similar to that she taught tobacco companies with the 1998 tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (MSA), by negotiating a Presenteeism Master Settlement (PMS) agreement. Under the PMS agreement employees would merely have $2.00 per hour deducted from their wages to make restitution to their employer over the next 25 years for lost productivity due to irresponsible Presenteeism. Nordstrom could then join Philip Morris' MSA experience in positing record profits after being taught its stern lesson under the PMS agreement, too. As an added public benefit the PMS agreement could become the cornerstone of a new campaign to further a political career, as the MSA was in our recent Gubernatorial race. White House here we come! Who says government can't solve worker productivity problems?

Make no mistake about it, this Presenteeism issue is a serious menace to employee productivity and therefore to employer profit bottom lines. Germ guru, University of Arizona microbiologist Chick Gerba, added a wealth of information for Today show viewers in the broadcast reported above. That information included data from a University of Arizona study funded by Clorox: 

"Roker: Would we be surprised by how many germs there are in all these different places we live?

Chuck Gerba: You would really be surprised.  Every day, you run a germ gauntlet getting to work and in your workplace.  Basically, the people before [you] who were ill laid a germ minefield. 

Roker: I hear you. It sounds like we're gonna explode.

Gerba: Well, no.  It's sort of like germ roulette.  You know, you touch the right spot at the wrong time.  And you bring your fingers to your nose, your mouth or your eyes.  You can pick up colds that way.  Eighty percent of the infections you get you're going to pick up from your environment.

Roker: In a study funded by Clorox, Gerba found that your work area can become, as he calls it, a "bacteria cafeteria." 

Gerba: We actually find more bacteria, 400 times more bacteria, on an average desktop than a toilet seat." (Underline added.)

It never ceases to amaze me how those of the "Anti-Mentality" seem to be fixated on toddler-level potty issues. Not long ago anti-tobacco's favorite mantra was that tobacco contains chemicals found in dog pee. Now we read that workplace desks are dirtier than a toilet seat. The NBC Today show segment is part of a series titled "Dirty America." 

Clorox funded a study that says so, so it must be true. The company manufactures and distributes Clorox Disinfecting Wipes.  By a cosmic serendipity coincidence the Today show's segment emphasizes several times that employees should only use products that say "Disinfecting" or "Sanitizing" on the label. A similar brand, The Wet Ones,   an antibacterial wipe manufactured by Playtex, is also mentioned in the segment. MSNBC reports about the Wet Ones:

"Roker: The type of Wet Ones Dee Dee was using were antibacterial, but they obviously weren't getting the job done. First of all, they are for use on hands and face, not desktops.  But also, Gerba says antibacterial products only kill a portion of the spectrum of bacteria that's out there.  Bottom line, for surfaces, you need something that says "disinfecting" or "sanitizing" in order to attack most bacteria as well as viruses.

Thomas: There's people in my office that sneeze openly. And cough and hack and eat, so I've been carrying Wet Ones, wiping with alcohol, and I've got the Purell. And every time I leave my desk and encounter people, I come back and do a quick swab of my triangle. And now you're telling me that..." (Underline added.)

But the Wet Ones product does not does not say "Disinfecting" or "Sanitizing" on the label so perhaps erstwhile employees should not use that product after all. It's interesting how university studies funded by corporate interests just happen to include marketing catch phrases that support their sponsor's products exclusively. We dare not suggest, of course, that the credibility of university "scientific" research could possibly be influenced a study sponsor's bucks. Why that would be, well, just ludicrous! Believing that Clorox funding of a University of Arizona study may influence its results or conclusions is pure heresy, as bad and ludicrous as believing that payments to the American Cancer Society by Nicorette's GlaxoSmithKline could possibly influence ACS's position on smoking bans. And we all know how true, factual and accurate ACS's statements about secondhand smoke are, so how could we dare question the credibility of the University of Arizona concerning its proclamations about "Disinfecting Wipes"? It would be interesting to dig up a few statistics about advertising revenues to NBC from Clorox. Maybe Playtex should advertise more on NBC to assure that they get their fair share of product promotions disguised as genuine and credible news.

A National Marketing Phenomenon

We are quite literally being marketed to death. The pitch is always the same

  1. Scare the pants off folks that their desk will turn into a toilet seat covered with a sheen of dog pee before their very eyes. 

  2. Negatively label coworkers who do not use the desired product to clean up the invisible mess as a deadly menace to their coworkers.

  3. Publish and promote product sponsor-paid "studies" that create yet another "biggest epidemic ever."

  4. Coerce employees and consumers to use "approved" products that will abate the menacing epidemic.

  5. Publicly praise in the news Pristine Clean dweebs who proudly proclaim their capitulation to the marketing mantra line.

  6. Castigate and berate by implication all who do not do so, then ostracize them, too.

  7. Rake in the bucks, go the bank, and budget part of the new balance to fund more studies about yet another even greater health menace.

Were it not so transparent and dangerous to legitimate public health such behavior would provide good copy for stand-up comics for the next millennium. The problem isn't so much with television newsmercials as it is with the public who goes along. Like self-important third grader employees dutifully discard their antibacterial Wet Ones to pounce on boxes of Clorox disinfectant wipes, to do the teachers bidding. And, in keeping with sixth-grade clique behavior, those who do not do so are shunned and ostracized as "one of them." It worked wonders for anti-tobacco about Environmental Tobacco Smoke to sell "Smoke Free" nicotine patches and gums, why not spread that intolerant joy around about sanitary wipes too

There's additional profit opportunities for employers here as well. As reported in my January 26, 2005 commentary "Lifestyle Choices By Fiat,"   published at Forces.org, WEYCO, Inc. recently fired four employees for smoking off the job and not on company property. The reason was that insurance costs for smokers hurt the company's bottom line. Well, here we have an alleged $156 billion loss to be recovered. If one can fire an employee for lawfully purchasing and consuming a legal product off company time and away from business premises, why not fire them because they don't purchase and use the correct wipe at work? After all, $156 billion in lost profits is more than added insurance costs for smokers and certainly justifies that, doesn't it? Are we next to hear that employees of NBC who do not maintain an adequate supply of Clorox Disinfectant Wipes at their work station - at their own expense, of course -- are to be fired? Are employees now to stand and take "The Clorox Pledge" to "Save Our Coworkers," on pain of termination if they do not do so?

But perhaps we leave the best for last. Just think of the opportunity this gives the Pristine Clean who need to rush by the nearest drycleaner to have their clothes cleaned after driving by a casino that allows smoking to get rid of the "stench," immediately before going home to wash their hair. To them this marketing pitch will be everlasting bliss. I can see it now: Pristine Christine and Charlie Clean standing before their fellow employees preening in their upscale health savvy while reeking of bleach to proclaim "My right to mandate that you use Clorox wipes begins at your armpit!" And, certain of their sterile moral superiority, John and Christine begin to sniff out their "unsuitable" fellow employees, then turn them in to the Wipe It Board for "appropriate" discipline.

I grew up in farm country. Spent most of my teen years milking cows, hauling hay, harvesting crops, and cleaning stalls. Even wore the trademark dairyman's knee-high rubber boots for years, while sloshing through pools of cow doo-doo in the coral. The cows didn't mind at all that I never used antibacterial or disinfectant wipes. The corral contained a considerably smaller pile of doo-doo than NBC's series about "Dirty America." Made it to near 60 years of age without Clorox wipes, and I suspect I'll survive a few more years without them, too.

What I do seriously question surviving on occasion is the hate of others that is inspired by such foolish marketing practices that promote intolerance of others to push corporate sales. And I serious doubt the ability of our legitimate public systems to survive the credibility damage that such marketing campaigns impose. 

Norman E. Kjono

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