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Janitors And Secretaries More Prone To Flu Symptoms

Yuya Tamai

Here’s another reason why it’s tough being a janitor: In a recent survey, people who clean work places are more prone to the flu. 

You would think that health care workers or teachers may be more prone to flu symptoms. After all, they’re the ones who are most exposed to sick adults and kids.  But a report published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE says there’s another group that’s more vulnerable to the flu: the folks who work behind the scenes, who clean up after us — the janitors.

Naomi Anderson is an epidemiologist with the state Department of Labor and Industries. She co-authored the study with the University of Washington. Anderson says one reason janitors are more prone to the flu is that they clean areas and objects that often harbor bacteria. 

“They’re cleaning up after us, disinfecting surfaces and touching things that are handled a lot like door knobs and handling materials and other things that could be contaminated,” Anderson said.

Secretaries or office administrators are also prone to the flu, in part because they’re the first line of contact with the public. 

The survey results don’t surprise Sergio Salinas.  Salinas is the president of the Service Employees International Union Local 6. The union represents more than 4,000 janitors and security officers in the region.

Salinas says his members have access to health care and are able to get flu shots. But part of the problem is that some janitors don’t have the right equipment or the right protection to do their job.  And these days they have larger areas to clean.

“Just to give you an example, a building that could have 20 janitors three to four years ago, now has 10.  And the occupancy in that building is still the same. It’s obvious those workers are doing a large amount of work,” said Salinas.

Salinas says the union is doing its own study to better understand their work conditions, and how they’re connected to injuries and illnesses related to their job. They hope to use that information to change regulations that affect the cleaning industry.      

This is the state’s first study looking at flu prevalence in different occupations.  Labor and Industries wants to do more studies to understand what’s really behind the rates before making specific recommendations.

Year started with KUOW: 1994