Avoiding Illnesses & Outbreaks in the Workplace

By Matt Ellis

Opera House Hotel; Bronx, NY

Opera House Hotel; Bronx, NY

George Burns, the Marx Brothers and George M. Cohan all performed at the old Bronx Opera House in New York City. The former Vaudeville theater is still called the Opera House, though now it houses a boutique hotel. This past summer it was the site of an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease.

First named for a pneumonia-like illness that killed 29 and sickened 182 at the 1976 convention of American Legion members in Philadelphia, the disease was a true mystery of its day. It took scientists at the US Centers for Disease Control several months to determine that people got sick and died from something they’d never before seen.

Today we know that the bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s disease lives in water, most often in large standing-water systems that are between 77 and 113 degrees Fahrenheit. The bacteria thrives in cooling towers and evaporative condensers as well as in shower heads and hot tubs, where victims can inhale the bacteria through mist or water droplets and fall ill. Historically, hotels have been prime targets—big ones like the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, site of the 1976 American Legion convention, and small ones like the Opera House on East 149th Street, a mile-and-a-half from Yankee Stadium.

Twelve people died in the Bronx; more than 120 were sickened. The outbreak prompted a closer examination of how building owners maintain their cooling towers. Health inspectors found traces of Legionella in at least 20 cooling towers, in a so-called impact zone, and ordered emergency disinfection. Later, the New York City Council passed a new regulation requiring building owners to conduct quarterly inspections of all cooling towers.

In the wake of what turned out to be the worst Legionnaire’s outbreak in New York’s history, Dr. Stephen Morse, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University told the New York Times he agreed with New York’s swift and sweeping action to check and clean cooling towers. “I think it’s a prudent measure,” he said. “I would like to see all buildings doing this routinely.”

Scientists have found even though people may be exposed to Legionella bacteria, it does not guarantee they will get sick or die. In that way, it is much like the flu, which building owners and managers take great pains to prevent—despite the fact that local and state governments rarely apply any pressure to do so.

Every year, one in four Americans contracts the flu. Last December, the US Centers for Disease Control declared the flu an epidemic, after an alarming number of children died. Once again this fall, people will be urged to get flu shots and to frequently wash their hands, cover their sneezes and stay home when they are sick. But, if history is any guide, most will ignore the warnings.

In 2014, the office supply company Staples reported the results of their fifth annual Flu Season Survey. It found 60% of people show up at work even when they have the flu, despite orders from their managers to stay home. Many people claim they know better but are under pressure to get work done, so they sacrifice their health as well as the health of their co-workers. As a result, cleaning crews are under extra pressure to prevent the spread of germs.

It’s why AffinEco takes extra steps to ensure public spaces, restrooms and surfaces are cleaned and disinfected. Crews always concentrate on cleaning high-touch surfaces (like elevator buttons, handrails, doorknobs, desks and countertops) to block the spread of the flu as well as other viruses like norovirus, a highly contagious virus that causes inflammation of the stomach and intestines and can’t be treated with any drug or prevented with any vaccine.

In the wake of New York City’s Legionnaire’s outbreak, more building owners and managers will be concerned with keeping their cooling towers cleaned and maintained. Perhaps this year, more members of the nation’s workforce will be concerned enough with the spread of the flu to heed the advice of their bosses, families and doctors and stay home when they are sick. That will give the AffinEco crews a better chance of keeping their workplaces clean, safe and healthy.

(image courtesy of tweakyourbiz.com)