Killing bacteria or people?

In some businesses the ultimate cost of poor hygiene could be death. Yet, it takes convincing to change behavior.

“How many do we want to kill before we do something about it?” This sinister rhetorical question was raised by Alan Friis, senior consultant in hygienic design for the food industry, when representatives from the cleaning industry in Denmark met at a seminar on TCO in that line of business. And he followed it up expressing a keen desire to be invited to teach hygiene to cfo’s in the food industry – not just to those in charge of cleaning.

In his opinion, many cfo’s seem to be blind to the obvious advantages of so-called hygienic design – machinery or other equipment that has been designed not just for a certain purpose and with high efficiency in mind, but also made of cleaning-friendly material and designed in a way that facilitates cleaning.

While the design itself, and perhaps convincing cfo’s or small business owners to invest, may be rocket science, the right path to take is not. The seminar participants generally agreed it is in fact all pretty simple. Various professionals should talk together and learn from each other.

Cleaning professionals should be heard both when architects design buildings and when engineers design processing lines, for instance, for the food industry. They, on the other hand, should give advice on how their “products” are properly cleaned to still be safe.

A 2013/2014 listeria outbreak in Denmark that made more than 40 people ill and cost 17 lives needs little introduction in the general public, let alone at the seminar where it is a natural case and reference point. The outbreak was traceable to a Danish manufacturer of sliced meat for traditional open sandwiches that were served in hospitals and it is believed the bacteria, that can be fatal to people with a weak immune system, developed due to sloppy cleaning and control of the processing line.

The factory paid dearly for the poor hygiene and the bad publicity – it eventually closed.
Total costs could be higher in the end, even fatal at times when, for instance, you invest in state-of-the-art production equipment with features that are difficult or impossible to clean, or if various processes have not been thought through or are seen as separate entities by the finance people.

Despite the obviousness and some successful cross-industry projects, the cleaning industry in Denmark is still “struggling” with business owners and companies choosing the cheapest solutions, looking exclusively at immediate savings: buying the cheapest equipment or hiring the factory owner’s 15-year-old niece to clean high-risk areas. Or as one participant put it: “There are still those who go to baker’s rather than the mechanic when their car breaks down!”

It calls for an even more sweeping change in behaviour than the industry has experienced in the past 10-15 years. Through awareness. Awareness of the benefits of cleaning-friendly design, of cross-industry cooperations, of hygienic issues and, of course, TCO.

The Danish Council for Better Hygiene, formed in 2008, estimates that 3,000 people die each year in Denmark as a result of poor hygiene. And poor hygiene “costs” more than a million sick-leave days, and thus the society billions of Danish kroner.