Vomit at the office: who’s liable – and what for?

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One sick lady
Not nice, ever. Not nice knowing you probably caused it either

Oh no! Vomit at the office. Professional cool and polish, gone in an instant. Feeling awful – and degraded – the end of the world.

Not your fault though, right? You couldn’t help it. One minute OK, the next…

Except the inconvenient truth is, it probably WAS your fault. Not deliberate or anything like that, but highly likely it was CAUSED by you.

We’re ALL bad

Now don’t feel bad, we’re all probably just as guilty. Because nine times out of ten your unfortunate experience is not caused by something you ate. More than likely it was from something you swallowed after touching it by hand.

Easily done – that hasty pastry gulped down with your flat white before the all-important 9.00 meeting. Eaten with your fingers, right? You had to lick the icing off afterwards. Four or five hours for the stuff to get down to your gut and react with your internal bacteria…

Excuse me, I don’t feel so good.

Upchuck all over the conference room floor.

The blame game

So how is it your fault? You didn’t do anything. That horrible heave-ho came out of nowhere.

Ah, that’s just the point. You didn’t do anything. And that’s why the rest of us are probably just as guilty. Because the one thing we’re always NOT doing though we know we should, is wash our hands.

Especially after going to the loo and before eating food. Yes, it’s shocking, but 62% of men and 40% of women NEVER wash their hands after going to the toilet.

Worse, 95% of people don’t ever take the time to wash their hands properly.

And just so you can recognise how easily your awful experience happened to you, only 12% of people ever wash their hands before eating.

Which means…

You can see it can’t you? Running late because the tubes were crowded and you couldn’t get on. Mad dash to the office via the coffee shop. Quick detour to the loo and check make-up. Gulp coffee and pastry – you burnt your mouth remember? Grab your laptop and go. 30 seconds to spare and your presentation was on first. No time to wash your hands – you just got unlucky.

Because most of the time we get away with it. This time, you just got caught.

Noro nasty

Better hope it’s not norovirus though – or any of the other real nasties. Four, five hours? It usually takes longer, more like eight. And it won’t be just your fault you made yourself sick – you could bring the whole office down.

You see, norovirus is highly contagious and gruesomely efficient. That’s why it spreads so explosively – the world record for long distance vomit – and don’t even think about the diarrhoea.

OK, so you slink home in a taxi, new silk blouse and your jacket ruined, icky vomit all through your hair. So what happens with the clean up?

Yeah well, it’s one of those accidents nobody is prepared for. Paper towels and dishwashing liquid in the kitchen, bleach if they’re lucky. Wrinkled noses and pulled faces attacking the patch on the carpet. Hopefully the night cleaning crew will fix it when they swamp out in the evening.

Except they won’t be prepared either, norovirus is smarter than that. Shampoo the wet patch, OK. Vomit gone.

And the rest of the room around that? The chair legs? The conference table? The air itself? Norovirus particles are as small as 2 microns, too small to see, finer than cigarette smoke – so they could be floating around for anything up to a week.

Everybody gets it, easy

All it takes is 10 particles, on somebody’s cheek, scraped together as they rub their eye, into the soft tissue round the cornea – next victim, prepped and ready. Picked up by others too – off the conference table, the door handle, the light switch – half a dozen targets.

They go to their desks, wake up their computers. Norovirus on the keyboards, the desk phone, the meeting minutes they circulate to their colleagues.

Tomorrow morning, a dozen staff calling sickies – with more to come because the germs are still in the air, still on all the high-touch areas not processed by the swamp-out team. The whole office down – vomit, cramps, diarrhoea, the works.

Your fault. You could get sued.

Well, yes. To begin with.

But also the company’s.

They have a duty of care to ensure the workplace is safe to work in – the floors are solid, the place doesn’t leak, there’s no mould, or drafts, or rats running around, and you don’t shock yourself half to death flipping the light switches.

And there’s no germs.

How safe is safe?

For instance if legionnaire’s disease was lurking in the air conditioning ducts you’d quite rightly be able to sue them for not providing a safe and secure hazard-free place to work. They’d have to compensate you AND pay to have the condition fixed – possibly even face criminal charges.

Norovirus is no different – and way more common than legionnaire’s disease – more common even than flu or the common cold.

Your company might shrug it off and say it’s not their problem – but keeping desks, chairs, computers, carpets, curtains and the air itself safe from germs is just as much part of their duty of care as making sure none of you freeze to death in winter.

You started it. But everybody else came down with the bug because of them.

You didn’t wash your hands. They didn’t ensure the place was germ-free afterwards. And most of the time everyone just accepts it’s just one of those things. You failed in your duty to yourself and your colleagues. They failed in their duty of care to all of you.

Yet it’s so easily fixable. And just maybe all of you are negligent in not knowing that it is.

Hygiene defence

Your personal upchuck could have been prevented by soap and water. Or your company could have been smart and put a pack of antibacterial wipes or hand gel on everybody’s desk – because they know that staff are busy and frequently forget to wash their hands – and even though it gets wiped off every night, everybody’s workstation is a major source of hazardous germs.

No, it won’t work with heavy bleach and more elbow grease, rubbing and scrubbing. The smell will be unbearable and the airborne germs will remain untouched. Steam cleaning won’t work either – germs need very high temperatures and at least five minutes contact time to be destroyed – not possible hose-piping around so that everything is wet – ineffective against airborne germs too.

More effective and far cheaper is to eliminate germs with a Hypersteriliser.

After the usual cleaning, a wheel-bin-sized unit is rolled in to mist up the place with ionised hydrogen peroxide. Electrostatically charged, microscopic particles of hydrogen peroxide actively clamour to get away from each other, spreading everywhere, forcing themselves into every crack and crevice to escape.

That same electrostatic charge causes them to reach out and grab at viruses and bacteria everywhere – on surfaces, under them, behind things, in the air itself. Contact time is only seconds, during which the germs’ cell structure and DNA is completely destroyed.

Sterile and safe

Allow forty minutes to process the entire room and the whole place is sterilised – no germs, no nothing – safe. No law suits either, or anyone suffering upchucks. Unless they forgot to wash their hands before climbing into lunch – or there really is something off with their chicken liver pâté – not cooked enough, perhaps.

Feel better? If it’s any consolation, norovirus only lasts two or three days – unpleasant yes, but it does come to an end.

Then you can wash your hands of the whole thing.

Picture Copyright: BDS / 123RF Stock Photo