Don’t Mistake Public Shows of On-the-Job Cleanliness for Real Workplace Safety

The importance of cleanliness in the workplace has become key in the COVID-19 era. But conspicuous scrubbing can also become a key form of boss propaganda — and a substitute for real worker protections.

(Verne Ho / Unsplash)

One of my employers makes us all watch a COVID-19 video, even if we’re working from home. The intention of the video is to convince us that it’s safe to come back to the physical workplace. The visual argument rests on assurances that it will be so clean once we get there.

The video, perkily narrated by a young, feminine voice because nothing says clean like women, shows imagery of cleansers, sanitizers, and glistening desks. Gleaming surfaces advertise just how hard some of our fellow employees (the cleaning staff) are working to eradicate germs from the environment. We are also exhorted to take on this cleaning labor ourselves: the nice lady’s voice instructs us in ways of sanitizing our desks, computers, and anything else we use.

This summer the Atlantic magazine’s Derek Thompson coined the term “hygiene theater” to describe the false sense of security we’ve derived, during this pandemic, from scrubbing surfaces, or from cleanliness. While experts emphasize that it’s still important to wash our hands, most also agree that COVID-19 is mostly not spread through surfaces, but rather, through the air. Most of us read that research — some of it from a German virologist, if ever a crude national stereotype instilled confidence! — and that’s why we stopped washing our groceries back in April. Our bosses are apparently assuming that none of us have been paying any attention to this.

In New York City, public schools are being scrubbed down every day. These dingy old buildings have never looked so clean. Under normal circumstances this would be a great morale boost for students, teachers, and staff, but as COVID-19 rates rise in some New York City neighborhoods, and many schools lack proper ventilation or access to comprehensive testing, it seems like a classic characterization of obsessive compulsion in which the patient is worried about the wrong thing — taking excessive care that his shirt is clean when in fact his underwear is dirty.

The subway, too, is gleaming, shut down for thorough cleaning every morning, and has been for months — and according to many studies is fairly safe for riders, though not for this reason — distracting us from remembering the many COVID-19 infections and deaths among MTA staff at the height of the pandemic. According to reporting by the City in June, workers blame cramped crew quarters and the MTA’s failure to act quickly to distribute and require masks and other PPE for employees, among other factors.

Amazon’s COVID-19 blog on how the company is supporting “employees, customers and communities” has a lot to say about how clean it all is. The company has added “more than 5,765” (beware of precisely imprecise numbers) janitors to its staff, and has “increased the frequency and intensity of cleaning at all its sites, including regular sanitization” of door handles, hand rails, touch screens and lots of other things.

This cleaning happens every ninety minutes, which is a lot. The company’s also “disinfect spraying” everything extensively. Yet Amazon released data on Thursday showing that 19,816 of its employees had tested positive for COVID-19. An NBC News report found a lack of transparency and failure to cooperate with local health authorities in contact tracing, and of course, too little protection for employees who showed symptoms and needed to call in sick.

Freud’s concept of “housewife’s psychosis,” in which mothers are so neurotically invested in cleaning that that they fail to adequately care for or protect their children, was probably a bit sexist and exaggerated (though it’s easy to imagine that middle-class twentieth-century women, as the keepers of domesticity, felt pressure to keep up their homes, which is boring work and could drive a person crazy). But Freud’s idea has intriguing applications here: our employers are cleaning at the expense of protecting us.

They’re also gaslighting us into a cleanliness obsession that, bordering on the excessive, obscures far more important imperatives of care, for ourselves, our coworkers, our families, and our communities. Those imperatives of care might include not going to the workplace at all when it’s not safe, or organizing resistance.

This use of hygiene theater by bosses feels deliberately propagandistic. Political theorist Jodi Dean says, “It’s action as a lie.” Those gleaming surfaces look sleek — and the detailed descriptions of the processes the produce them sound impressive — but they distract us from workers’ safety and survival.