Trend Watch: Fewer Co-Workers Wash Their Hands

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Bored on the toilet at work, Jennifer Bodoh, an office manager for a design and remodeling company in Chicago, was catching up on Twitter. She was interrupted by a woman from a company down the hall who stormed in and pulled what Bodoh calls a “flush and run”—i.e., no washing. “Do I tweet this?” Bodoh wondered from her stall. (In the end, she didn’t, but she did tell this reporter about it). Repulsed by the idea of a “pee-infested hand,” she opened the door with a paper towel when she exited. Now, she says in an e-mail, “I try not to go to the bathroom when she walks by.”

Some co-workers just can’t be trusted to be hygienic. In a new survey by plumbing fixtures and washroom accessories manufacturer Bradley, 42 percent of people say they frequently or occasionally see people leave the work restroom without washing their hands. More than half estimate that they wash for just five to 15 seconds, short of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation of at least 20 seconds, or the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice.

The number of people who always wash their hands fell by two to three percentage points this year, says Jon Dommisse, Bradley’s director of global marketing and strategic development. “I believe the reason is this is the first year we have not had a serious national health epidemic,” he says. “Things are pretty good and—for the first time in four years—the number edged down a bit, instead of continuing to move up.” The results are based on Bradley’s survey of 1,046 American adults, conducted Aug. 1 to 3, about hand-washing habits in public restrooms.

“I’m shocked that in this day and age there are people who actually don’t wash their hands openly in front of other people, like it’s normal,” says Bodoh. As for using her phone in the bathroom, she says she only texts and tweets—no conversations.

Health experts have long promoted handwashing to prevent the spread of illness, though many continue to ignore their advice.

Michael Sykes, who started the humor site, the International Center for Bathroom Etiquette, says, “The most interesting thing I’ve seen are the people who wash their hands before, but not after.” In a lab environment, for example, “people might be concerned with transferring chemicals to their privates, but I guess these same people weren’t that concerned with transferring their pee to everybody else.”

Some offices attract more conscientious workers. A New York lawyer, who asked not to be named, says: “Here, people are a bit anal.” (Maybe not the best choice of words.) “They both wash their hands, then follow up with Purell. … The peer pressure of having another person there usually makes them wash their hands, even if it’s not their habit when alone.” Lawyers, more than most professionals, are keenly aware of culpability.

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