Posted by: talkjack | May 2, 2009

How to cure swine flu – the Star Trek solution

How can the West stop the Swine Flu pandemic? Call it Swine Flu, Tequila Flu or plain simple influenza A (H1N1), the swine flu pandemic seems only days or hours away now. Unless it has been overstated of course. Cynic, moi?

Talkjack reckons that we already have the technology to stop the spread of swine flu, but we lack the will to implement it. The main reason? Money!

Here’s an amusing thought. Imagine how a flu-like infection would spread amongst staff on the Star Ship Enterprise or Voyager? After all, a star ship is a workplace, and the crew are located in a confined area, sharing each other’s air and eating and working together 24/7.  Therefore, Talkjack reckons that bio-security is critical for health and safety in star ship. Compare that to workplaces in Bully Britain or the US for a moment.

When a flu victim sneezes and fails to catch 100% of the yuck in a tissue, they are likely to get some bugs on their hands. If they touch something with a hard surface the infection will live there for up to 3 or 4 hours, waiting for a victim to touch the surface and become infected. So, in a workplace, what sort of surfaces do we all touch?

Dirty door handles

What about door handles for example? You go to the toilet / rest room, wash your hands afterwards, then you have no choice except to touch a door handle which has probably been touched by several people who did not wash their hands. Not a nice thought? Now multiply that by the number of interior doors that you pass through in a day. Makes you wonder how many bugs are on your hands in the workplace with five minutes of washing them after using the toilet. Did you wash your hands before eating lunch? Try not to touch a door handle on your way back from the sink, won’t you!

In Star Trek, they have those cool automatic opening doors which open by sliding along the wall when the door sensor detects someone at the doorway. Being sci-fi, Star Trek doors make that famous sound when they open and close, and apparently also have some kind of dialogue or storyline anticipation system to open at the most dramatic moment. Apart from that, we already have Star Trek doors. You generally see them in large shops or shopping centres. They are financially viable because shops want to get lots of potential customers inside as quickly as possible. Money talks.

You do sometimes see Star Trek doors at the entrances to workplace. However, in my experience, interior doors generally use standard, cheaper, door handles and rely on manual opening. This is because money matters to businesses. Why waste cash on anything better?

Dirty Telephones

In a workplace staff have to share telephones. If someone’s desk phone is ringing and they are not there, you better answer it for them within four rings or you might get in trouble because every call matters.
In Star Trek they don’t have telephones. All employees / crew members are issued with lightweight personal communicators which Velcro or clip onto clothing. No need to catch swine flu after a flu victim touched it with minging hands or spread droplet infection onto the phone.

We do have similar real world technology already. In many workplaces we could and abolish land lines totally and issue staff with lightweight mobile phones. As a compromise we could use technology like SIP to cheaply and automatically redirect internal landline calls to staff mobile phones. But we don’t. If that colleagues desk is empty and the phone rings, we have management pressure to answer it, and answer it quickly. Or else.

Dirty air

In Star Trek they scrub the air clean, and have invented clever systems to respond to air-borne infection. We have the technology to clean the air ourselves, but it costs money to implement and maintain air conditioning. Staff tend to notice the temperature, and complain if it is too hot or cold. They cannot see the spread of Legionella bacteria in the office air conditioning, they can only trust that management are ensuring that proper maintenance takes place. People who complain they feel ill at work are often classed as having ‘sick building syndrome’ and are not taken particularly seriously in Talkjack’s experience.

As an interesting side note, I think it was that nice guy Stephen Fry on his TV show QI who taught us that the smoking ban has made air travel more dangerous for passengers. This is because they used to actively scrub the air clean back in the day when passengers were allowed to smoke. When smoking on plains was banned it meant airlines could stop scrubbing the air clean in order to save money. Ironically non-smokers may have been better off on planes before the smoking ban.

Poor management

In  Star Trek, if ever a person shows a sign of being ill, the captain sends them straight to sick bay and gives them time off duty. In a real world workplace, if someone wants time off work due to ill health they are discouraged from taking time off.

In Star Trek, if someone is sent to sick bay then the Captain assigns someone else to cover their duties. In the workplace, if you are away from your post, work piles up and waits for you to return. Gee, thanks Boss.

In Talkjack’s experience, becoming ill and asking for time off work is more likely to be met with scepticism than sympathy. Workplace colleagues hate you if you come to work and infect them with flu or a cold, but are equally likely to bitch behind an ill person’s back and assert that someone is skiving off work if they do take any time off. And if you are brave enough to take time off, the form filling and return to work interviews can be off-putting. I wonder if that is intentional, to encourage sick people to drag themselves into work?

Talkjack thinks management is to blame for this. They have fostered the current culture and attitudes to ill health amongst staff. Some line managers I have spoke with blame HR departments for requiring them to implement strict company policies to standardise absenteeism across all business departments. I think that a manager with a KPI to ensure that their team meet an arbitrary attendance target is less likely to be sympathetic to a sick employee than one who is allowed to put  health and safety before attendance targets.

However, managers should be held responsible for ensuring there is no workplace culture of backbiting and ridiculing people for taking time off sick. It is stressful for the victim, and is a form of bullying.  The old maxim springs to mind – “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”. How do you measure workplace bullying? Count the resignations letters perhaps, he said cynically. Maybe some Star Fleet training for managers might help?

(c) Copyright Talkjack 2009



  1. The NHS are running an 18 month trial of copper door handles at Birmingham’s Selly Oak Hospital at the moment, to combat MRSA etc. Copper door handles have been shown to kill all bacteria. I wonder how the public will take to the handles though, because unlaquered copper handles will tarnish and green, and will LOOK unclean, however safe they actually may be! See Interesting point about the sliding doors, see our website for great offers on sliding door and pocket door kits.

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