Originally created 08/31/97

Big Brother in the bathroom



ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) - Just used the restroom at work? Don't forget to wash your hands. The boss may be watching.

A high-tech system that keeps track of whether employees go to the sink after they've been to the toilet is getting its first test at Tropicana Casino and Resort here, despite criticism that it invades workers' privacy.

"It's Big Brother in the bathroom. A lot of serious questions need to be asked - and answered - before something like this gets done," said David Rocah, staff attorney for the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In a two-week trial period that began Friday, 20 kitchen employees will be required to wear a badge that triggers an infrared sensor when they enter the restroom. A second sensor, at the soap dispenser, will activate if they remain at the sink for at least 15 seconds.

An electronic record is kept each time an employee uses the restroom. Those who skip the sink or who wash without using soap will see red lights on their badges illuminated automatically. If they wash up properly, they get a green light, according to Glenn Cohen, president of Net/Tech International Inc., the Red Bank-based manufacturer.

Its makers call Hygiene Guard a high-tech breakthrough that will help reduce the incidence of food-borne illness. Critics call it invasion of privacy.

"It's Orwellian," said Robert McDevitt, president of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 54, which represents about 15,000 casino hotel workers.

The union will file an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board because the use of the system violates the terms and conditions of the union's contract with casinos, McDevitt said.

Studies have shown that people often skip the sink on their way out of a public restroom. 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 air-borne bacteria, such as hepatitis.

It is not known how much of the problem is caused by dirty hands, however.

"This is only the beginning of a far-reaching technology that will save many, many lives," said Dan Richards, one of the inventors, who was on hand for a demonstration Thursday.

If the casino likes the system, it can lease it for about $90 a month or buy it outright for $3,650.

Casino spokeswoman Susan Kotzen said employees caught not washing up several times would be spoken to. She did not rule out disciplinary action for repeat offenders.