Let’s face it. We deal with some unclean people while working in the field in law enforcement. Oftentimes, parts of our population who live outside don’t choose to (or otherwise don’t have access to) bathe with any great frequency, and nobody can tell by looking which member of any part of our population might be ill with contagious diseases of varying severity. (That includes your coworkers, incidentally.)
For those who work in an office job, the biggest concern is likely whether the person next to you is coughing their brains out, and it’s easy to stay away from them if so. Out on the streets, and by the nature of what we do in public safety, however, we’re going to encounter this stuff hands-on at close proximity – including having these folks “visit your office” when they’re put in the back of the car, or through sharing said office and its desk with at least 4-5 other people during the course of a week, in most cases.
How Clean Is Clean Enough?
Most of the officers I know will go over the surfaces they contact most frequently with a disinfectant wipe when they start their shift. It’s a good precaution, and one that can help protect you from getting sick. But in many agencies, those cruisers are rarely, if ever, thoroughly cleaned out and disinfected, meaning that bacteria, bodily fluids, or other contaminants may still be lurking around in the places that the Lysol wipes didn’t reach, or didn’t soak through for enough time to kill whatever’s living there.
The contact time needed to kill certain baddies is surprisingly high – Virex II, one of the more common and stronger disinfectants used in hospitals, takes a full minute of exposure on a hard, non-porous surface to kill HIV, for example. (Note: your steering wheel is both soft and porous. Sorry.) Tuberculosis is even more persistent, requiring 5 minutes of exposure to isopropanol (rubbing alcohol) to destroy it in one older study.
Neither of these statements is intended to freak you out, as the incidence of environmental acquisition of HIV is almost nil, and tuberculosis most often comes about because of direct exposure to an infected patient, but the point is made: if your agency isn’t taking the time to periodically disinfect your cruiser interior, it should be – including the air vents if possible, where the warm, moist environment is basically Shangri La for bacteria that can cause bronchitis and pneumonia. On your own, it’s worth the investment to do what you can, when you can, as far as making sure you give things a good cleaning before you settle in for your shift.
What About Protection?
Some things can help to mitigate the problem in terms of what you wear every day to work. Everyone knows about basic PPE such as nitrile gloves, but we (rightfully) don’t wear those unless we know ahead of time that we’re going to be going hands-on with someone who’s less-than-sparkly, which isn’t always the case. Patrol gloves are a good start in terms of “things that are a good idea” when it comes to avoiding exposure – while they may not be certified as totally medically protective, you’re still putting an additional layer or more of material between the contaminant and your skin, and many offer additional benefits such as models which qualify as cut resistant gloves.
But it’s not just your hands that you should think about – your feet, for example, are one area that most don’t consider a possible risk. Think about (or don’t, if the idea terrifies you) what you must be walking in every day. Yes, that nasty drug house qualifies, as does the homeless encampment, or even just someone’s house – as I said, you never know what said person may or may not have in their system, even in the nicest of homes. While there are pathogen resistant boots available, any quality patrol or tactical boots will help more than a basic shoe can – especially if they’re waterproof. Often our feet are dried or cracked, as well, which leaves more openings for a contaminant to get in and cause problems. As an aside, you should take the time to disinfect your boots, too, especially before you get home… many choose to leave them outside on the porch to prevent tracking work environments into their house.
Finally, the uniform you wear can also make a difference, depending on the material it’s constructed from and what treatments the fabric has undergone. Some tactical police uniforms have DWR (durable water repellent) coatings on them that repel fluids that come in contact with their surfaces, for example, while the jacket you choose to wear can also provide some pathogen resistant properties built into it, such as that which GORE TEX CROSSTECH fabric provides.
In the end, simple precautions thought about ahead of time, combined with appropriate PPE when you have time, and efforts to keep the environment you work in cleaner, can all contribute to preventing your cruiser itself, as well as the people you meet, from getting you sick and taking you out of the fight when it comes to protecting and serving the community that depends on you.
Greg Bogosian is certified as a Reserve/Intermittent Police Officer by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and spent twelve years working as an EMT-Basic, including four years as a field EMT and dispatcher for the City of Boston EMS. He was additionally a member of a Federal medical disaster relief team for ten years, with experience responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the pre-deployment of resources for Hurricane Ike. Greg currently has a passion for educating public safety professionals about matters which impact their lives every day, and welcomes feedback and suggestions in the spirit of ensuring that best practices make it out there for all to benefit from.