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Sanitation concerns at Cornell fitness centers: emails from Sept. 2009 – Nov. 2012

Jonathan Ochshorn


1. Sept. 8, 2009

On 9/8/09, 7:29 AM, "Jonathan Ochshorn" wrote:
TO:; Thomas W. Bruce; Gannett Health Center

The fitness centers at Cornell (I only refer to Helen Newman and Teagle) should take more account of hygiene, especially given the incidence of flu this season. Gannett has written: "HELP STOP THE SPREAD: Watch for seasonal flu vaccine late this month or early October. Currently, flu prevention consists of getting adequate rest and nutrition, and practicing excellent hand hygiene." (

There is no access to water for washing hands in the two fitness centers refer to, and no non-water hand-washing options are made available.

There is no systematic process for cleaning the equipment after each use. The current policy of intermittent cleaning is useless. It is essential that the equipment be cleaned after each use. This cannot be voluntary or discretionary.

At the point where uniforms and towels are issued, "fresh" towels are placed on the same counter as "soiled" towels. Personnel do not seem to have a systematic protocol in place for the sanitary transfer of soiled uniforms so that they do not contaminate the fresh ones. They also seem to put themselves at risk.

If Cornell is serious about reducing the spread of disease, please don't just issue emails: take productive and effective action.


Jonathan Ochshorn
Associate Professor

2. Sept. 8, 2009

From: Jennifer Austin
Date: Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 9:32 PM
To: "Jonathan Ochshorn (by way of Gannett Health Center Administration)"
Subject: Re: health measures at Cornell Fitness Centers

Hi Jonathan,

Thank you for taking the time to write with your concerns. I've forwarded your e-mail to our colleagues in the Cornell Fitness Centers. I expect you will hear from them soon, if you have not already.

Wishing you good health,
Jennifer Austin

3. July 11, 2011

On 7/11/11, 7:57 PM, "Jonathan Ochshorn" wrote:

TO: Jan Talbot MS, CHES

I would like to formally bring to your attention poor sanitation practices at the Cornell Fitness Center and Issue Room sites that I use at Teagle Hall and Helen Newman Hall. Perhaps as advocates for health promotion at Cornell, you or someone in your staff could look into this and advocate for more consistently healthy practices at these facilities. Here are my main complaints:

1. Fitness equipment is not routinely cleaned after each use. Individual users are not asked to clean machines that they use, and are sometimes discouraged from using the cleaning equipment (rags and cleanser) in the facility that are meant to be used by staff only. Staff only wipe down machines and floor mats every couple of hours, rather than after each use. Staff respond that they are willing to clean equipment if asked: this is clearly inadequate, as few users ask, so that the risk of transmitting infection increases — thereby putting all Cornellians at greater risk, since we are all part of this community. At other fitness centers outside of Cornell, users are required to clean equipment after they use it: this is a simple and effective remedy.

2. There are no sinks available in the Fitness Centers. Especially at Teagle (upstairs), the closest sink (for men) is quite a distance away, one level below.

3. After the recent flu scare, the Fitness Centers made available hand sanitizer at their entry desks. Recently, when I asked to use some, I was told that it is no longer policy to make the stuff available for users, but only for staff.

4. At the issue room, especially in Teagle, soiled uniforms and towels are routinely placed on the same surface where clean uniforms and towels are placed: there seems to be no consciousness that the clean items could be compromised by coming into contact with soiled items. And these soiled items include not only used towels, but also jock straps, shorts, shirts, and socks.

5. The fitness center runs out of clean towels many times during any given year. This puts even greater stress on the various surfaces with which users make contact.

This is an invisible problem: staff and management seem complacent or oblivious to the issues, since any problems that emerge cannot easily be attributed to their practices, but rather get absorbed into Cornell's overall statistics for disease and infection. And these issues seem readily remedied, without great expense. It just requires a change in attitude and culture.

Thanks for your attention to this issue.

Jonathan Ochshorn

4. July 12, 2011

On 7/12/11, 1:53 PM, "Janis I Talbot" wrote:

Dear Professor Ochshron [sic],

I appreciate your email and concerns. I am forwarding your email to Tisha Tipping, Director of Cornell Fitness Centers, and Beth McKinney, Director of the Cornell Wellness Program for faculty and staff. Both individuals are in a much better position than we at Gannett to discuss with you their programs' current practices and to address the specific concerns you shared. I'm sure you will find both individuals quite responsive and open to your suggestions. Please feel free to contact me again, if you need further assistance with these concerns.

Janis Talbot

Janis Talbot, Health Educator
Health Promotion, Mental Health Initiatives
Gannett Health Services phone: 607 255-9377
Cornell University fax: 607 255-0269
Ithaca, NY 14853-3101

5. July 12, 2011

On 7/12/11, 2:06 PM, "Jonathan Ochshorn" wrote:


I was hoping that someone qualified to "promote health" at Cornell could investigate and follow up with these issues. I am not qualified to discuss these issues with Fitness/Wellness directors; that is why I brought these issues to your attention. And, by the way, these problems also involve the Issue Room staff, who are apparently not connected with either the Fitness or Wellness programs.

So, yes: I do need further assistance. I would like someone at Gannett to investigate these issues and recommend remedial action, if deemed necessary. If there is no one at Cornell charged with actually promoting healthful practices, please let me know.


6. July 20, 2011

On 7/20/11 4:19 PM, "Beth McKinney" wrote:


As promised, I will bring this up with the CFC folks. We have a new facilities manager starting tomorrow who has worked at 3 other large university fitness centers and is active in the (NIRSA) association. My CFC colleague, who I just talked with, suggested they bring this up at one of their staff meetings to review and get some additional input regarding best practices.

Take care,

7. July 20, 2011

From: Jonathan Ochshorn
Date: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 at 5:19 PM
To: Beth McKinney
Cc: Janis I Talbot, Tisha Lea Tipping
Subject: Re: Fitness Follow Up


Thanks for following up on this. I have no particular expertise in such things, but I know that infections transmitted through equipment, and related [to] poor sanitation practices, are increasingly being recognized as a serious issue — whether in hospital settings where simple sanitary protocols have dramatically reduced infection rates ("Health care workers' failure to clean their hands is the most important cause of hospital-based infections, which are the fourth-leading cause of death in America and cost our health care system some $40 billion a year." — , or in fitness centers, where transmission of infections through equipment contact is increasingly recognized as a problem ("Between bodily fluids and germs, commercial fitness equipment gets dirty quickly. Considering that the entire purpose of exercise equipment is to burn calories and make the person sweat, it isn't surprising that these machines are such a great breeding ground for bacteria. To prevent spreading germs that can lead to infections such as MRSA, proper cleaning of commercial fitness equipment is essential." —

Many of our peer institutions require that equipment be wiped down after each use, including Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania. Locally, both Ithaca College and the YMCA fitness centers have explicit policies requiring users to wipe down equipment after each use.

This is the major issue that I see. Additionally, having hand cleansers available for users is very important, since there are no sinks in the fitness centers. And getting the issue rooms (especially in Teagle) to create protocols for keeping soiled uniforms away from clean towels and uniforms seems self-evident.

You should seek recommendations from health professionals with expertise in this area, even if it means hiring consultants from outside Cornell. Clearly, in-house expertise is lacking and, as a result, the health of the entire Cornell community is threatened. —

Jonathan Ochshorn
Department of Architecture
Cornell University

8. Sept. 29, 2011

From: Jonathan Ochshorn
Date: Thursday, September 29, 2011 at 10:46 AM
To: Beth McKinney
Cc: Janis I Talbot, Tisha Lea Tipping
Subject: Re: Fitness Follow Up


Is there any follow-up news on the issues I raised?


9. Dec. 5, 2011

From: Jonathan Ochshorn
Date: Monday, December 5, 2011 10:20 AM
To: Beth McKinney
Cc: Janis I Talbot, Tisha Lea Tipping
Subject: Re: Fitness Follow Up


Still waiting for your follow-up email.

One more relatively recent article about transmission of infections due to poor sanitary habits:


10. Jan. 12, 2012

From: Jonathan Ochshorn
Date: Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 11:37 AM
To: Jonathan Ochshorn
Subject: Memo to file: follow up on fitness center health-cleanliness-germs issues

Memo to file:

Beth McKinney, Director Cornell Wellness (255-3703) called me Jan 12, 2012 11:30 am to follow-up on my complaints about lack of proper hygiene at Fitness Centers.

She said: There was a meeting with Frank Cantone, Cornell EHS (Environmental Health and Safety) who is MRSA (flu) expert on campus
They got new feedback, without all details, here is a summary:
They will be taking action:
now have hand cleaner available
have set up committee of in-house people (wellness, recreational service, fitness, Cantone) —> they are coming up with solutions to minimize germs
there are pros and cons of trying to kill germs —> best practices from Cantone
working to put into place best practices:

no empirical evidence that fitness center is cause of MRSA
but there are places where build up of material is a problem
no way to kill all germs without strong chemicals
best strategy is to wipe down equipment to reduce build-up
they will offer opportunities to wipe down equipment, or consider a different cleaning schedule
also provide better signage: "hygene-by-choice"
Committee meeting tomorrow; they are taking my complaint seriously.

11. Nov. 29, 2012

From: Jonathan Ochshorn
Date: Thursday, November 29, 2012 at 12:17 PM
To: Beth McKinney
Cc: Janis I Talbot, Tisha Lea Tipping
Subject: Re: Fitness Follow Up


Some follow-up on the issue of sanitation practices at the Cornell fitness centers:

Providing cleaning materials for fitness center users is an improvement. However, by leaving it as a voluntary activity, the transmission of infections — which affects the entire Cornell community — is not addressed. This is because very few users seem to be using the available cleaning material. It really needs to be made mandatory, and an educational component needs to be built into Wellness (or other) memberships.

The actual materials provided are not satisfactory. The paper towels fall apart when used; the blue cloth towels work much better, but I was told yesterday that they are not available for users, only for staff. And no cleaning materials have been provided for the floor mats.

Finally, the poor sanitary practices at the issue rooms (at least in Teagle) persist: clean towels and gym uniforms are placed on the same counter surfaces with soiled uniforms and towels. While the issue rooms may not be within your jurisdiction, it seems to me that sanitation practices should be coordinated centrally — someone needs to take the initiative to provide a consistently safe exercising and fitness environment.

Thanks again for your interest in these issues.

Jonathan Ochshorn

12. Nov. 30, 2012

From: Beth McKinney
Date: Friday, November 30, 2012 at 2:35 PM
To: Jonathan Ochshorn
Cc: Janis I Talbot, Tisha Lea Tipping, Kerry Howell, "Frank A. Cantone" , Mary J Adams-Kucik, Mark Joseph Bilyk
Subject: RE: Fitness Follow Up

Dear Jon,

I am happy to reply to your concerns on behalf of Cornell Fitness Centers, Gannett Health Services and Environmental Health and Safety.

We appreciate your conscientious efforts to help the fitness centers minimize the spread of infections. The team that was created to address these concerns consisted of representatives from the Cornell Fitness Centers, Gannett Health Services, CU Wellness Program, Recreational Services, and Environmental Health and Safety. After several meetings, these subject matter experts agreed the most effective way to mitigate the problem was to provide what you currently see in the fitness centers.

At this time, we remain firm that the current procedure has improved the situation and is working well for our members. There is nothing more that our group plans to change at this time.

I will, however, let Mark Bilyk, who oversees the issue rooms, know about your concerns regarding the issue room procedures.