Sinking Under Regulation

I tell folks all the time -- there are very few bad people in government, just people with very bad incentives.   Government inspectors are no exception.  They look around them and see falling government tax revenues.  They know that state and local governments are looking to cut costs, and they know further that lawmakers are likely to look at falling construction starts and reduced business activity and say "I bet we could do with fewer inspectors."

So state inspectors, naturally, want to hold onto their jobs, so they have to go out and look busy.   One way to look busy (and to further look like one is being useful) is to be more picky about small, meaningless violations. Writing up more violations makes it look like one is needed (after all, if there are so many violations out there, surely we need inspectors to find them).  Also, violations demand return visits and follow-up inspections, which again create the illusion of activity.

Which leads to stuff like this:

Sherrie Nielson owns two Chandler bars, antique-filled Priceless Too at Alma School and Elliot roads, and Priceless Primetime at Dobson and Elliot.

An inspector with the county department of environmental services has told her she needs to install a sink at the bar so it's convenient for the bartenders to wash their hands

Nielson has one sink in the bar area, but that's for washing glasses. County regulations say employees can't wash their hands in the same sink that they wash dishes.

"I've owned 'Too' for 30 years," Nielson said. "The sink we use is probably 20 feet in a different direction. . . . I have a dishwashing sink; (the inspector) wants a hand sink next to it."

Nielson says counting the sinks in the kitchen and the restrooms, she has four sinks available for washing hands. But the key point is that it has to be convenient for the bartender.

"If I don't comply, they will start proceedings to shut me down," she said.

Johnny Dilone, a spokesman for the county environmental services department, verified that Nielson's license could be revoked if she doesn't install the new sink.

This story resonates with me, as we have had to fight the sink battle in a number of locations as well.  Take one small store we run in a state park in northern California.  Because we make coffee there, we must comply with food preparation rules (including 8 hours annually of training, lol.  I am not a coffee drinker, but for all that I sure hope we have good freaking coffee).  We eventually had to install:  A three sink dishwashing station, a sink in the employee bathroom, a separate sink for handwashing in the store a few feet from the sink in the bathroom, and a mop sink.

The problem is that the regulations are confusing, and no one in the local health department would look at our plans in advance.  Obviously, it is a lot easier to fix missing sinks and such at the planning stage, but the health department in this county would only inspect actual facilities, so would only tell us if our design met their requirements once it was built!


  1. greg:

    I often try to get in the mind of the people who advance such regulation. I can usually find some "reason" (however irrelevant, and wrongheaded it might be) that the regulation would be a good idea.

    But this one has me stumped. Why can't I wash my hands in the same sink as I wash my dishes? Is it a germ thing? Is a dishwashing sink a different size or height than a hand washing sink?

    Maybe someone in the restaurant industry can enlighten me.

  2. Paul:

    I was a little luckier, but it took a lot of effort. When my mom was building a new house, she had an island in her kitchen, with a small hand sink. The island was 48"x48". She had an electric outlet strip under the counter top opposite the sink. When the countertop was installed, it measured 50"x50". Since electrical outlets had to be every 48" in the kitchen, the village inspectors said we had to install another outlet opposite the existing strip. Right in front of the sink. After actually showing them how unsafe an outlet is in front of a sink, they agreed to waive the requirement. At least they didn't make us move the sink.

  3. Ray:

    Years ago one of my trucks was subject to a Dept of Trans inspection, it passed with the exception of a crack in the windsheild running over the top of the defroster vent. From the drivers position looking thru the crack all you saw was sheet metal...the hood of the truck. They issued a fixit ticket and a 2006 green passed decal pasted to the windshield...which absolutely obscured the driver vision.

    Hey...great blog, thanks!

  4. Karen Dennison:

    Unfortunately, many small business owners don’t think they will ‘get caught’ in non-compliance. But, it isn’t only the inspectors. The bigger dangers are the plaintiff’s attorneys who are even more motivated because their payoff is much bigger.
    Rather than having a regulatory system that protects the consumers and the business owners, we have a punitive system that is all but impossible to actually comply with.

  5. Vercingetorix:

    There's a good reason the health department won't look at your plans in advance: some bureaucrats want you to pay one of them, an inspector or perhaps a manager, privately as a "consultant" to check your plans. I've run into this scam more than once. Their rule that they "only inspect [and often reject] completed work" is just a scheme to force you to pay them personally.

    (The people involved may consider themselves honest; they may even refuse ordinary bribes. If questioned they will assert that they provide a valuable service by "consulting" on the side. But they are fundamentally crooked. They abuse the power attached to their government jobs to force taxpayers and fee-payers to pay twice for everything.)