When Robert Thornhill enters a Columbia County restaurant, he is accustomed to the reaction from employees.
"As soon as you walk in the door, they'll start scattering," said Thornhill, who is an environmental health specialist for the Columbia County Health Department.
He is one of the county's four specialists, commonly known as health inspectors. The department inspects restaurants, tourist accommodations, septic systems, swimming pools and private wells, and oversees the county's mosquito surveillance, chemical hazards and rabies-control programs.
Thornhill and his colleagues are rarely seen as the good guys, however, especially by owners of establishments they are inspecting.
"We do get a bad rap," said Andrea Frazier, a county environmental health specialist. "That's why they call environmental (health) the invisible profession, because nobody really knows that people are doing what we do. They hope there is somebody doing what we do. ... They just don't know what we do."
Specialists inspect the county's nearly 230 restaurants at least twice a year.
Inspections are performed based on a detailed list of state food safety standards.
"It is what it is," Thornhill said of a restaurant's score, good or bad. "It is what I saw today."
Leslie Lanier, another specialist, said she doesn't enjoy giving poor scores. She does pay attention to inspection scores when deciding where she'll dine out.
"The places I go are the ones that do a fairly good job or I wouldn't be going there," Lanier said. "I've walked in with a group of people and saw the score and looked at the inspection report and told them, 'Y'all can stay and eat, but I'm leaving.' "
Inspections involve the entire restaurant, especially the kitchen, from floor to ceiling, Frazier said.
"We'll check everything in here," Frazier said. "There is no surface in here we will not check."
Inspectors check temperatures on foods, general cleanliness, surfaces and food storage, and labeling. The more severe violations are those involving staffers not washing their hands, improper cooking, cooling or reheating temperatures, not cooking to minimum temperatures, and bare-handed contact with ready-to-eat foods, Frazier said.
A big misconception about restaurant safety is that cleanliness equals food safety, Thornhill said. A restaurant can appear immaculate, but kitchen staffers can be mishandling food.
"The more exotic the food items, the more challenges you have," Frazier said. "Sushi chefs are used to not having to wear gloves. They have to wear gloves now. A trained sushi chef who has been trained for 45 years in Japan thinks it is a slap in the face if you make him wear gloves. It doesn't go over well."
Specialists spend a lot of time inspecting restaurants, but they regularly turn their eyes to other public accommodations, including hotels and motels. They examine every aspect of hotel operations, from the outside grounds to the lobby restrooms to the laundry facilities and ice machines.
They inspect guest rooms at each establishment twice a year.
"We look at everything," Frazier said.
In teams, the specialists go through the rooms, checking bathroom ventilation, the cleanliness of the room, the refrigerator, microwave, carpet and bed. They make sure all surfaces are cleaned with antibacterial cleansers.
In hotel room inspections, Frazier said, she has found lots of things, including used condoms, panties behind a headboard, food in refrigerators and lots of hair.
Still, the hotels mostly do a good job running clean establishments, she said.
The specialists are always on the lookout for bedbugs. Finding them is not common, but specialists still rip linens off beds, flip over mattresses and pull out drawers to be sure.
What specialists see during the course of their jobs often sticks with them.
Frazier said she rarely goes out to eat. Dining out with others can be difficult because she is so aware of potential dangers.
"You can never turn it off," she said. "I can't turn it off. When I go out to eat, I can't turn it off."
There are times the specialists feel like bad guys for doing their job, although it protects public health. It seems especially poignant when they close a pool during the summer.
"For the most part, people are having a good time and we ruin it," Frazier said. "When you have to make the kids get out of the pool. We've all had to experience that. ... We don't like having to do that."
Despite the smell that often infiltrates her home after long days inspecting septic systems, and knowing the information she sometimes wishes she didn't, Frazier said there are aspects of her job she really enjoys.
Giving presentations to the schools on career day is one of her favorite things to do.
Every day is different, and plans often change at the last minute.
"I like to talk to people," she said. "I like to get out and visit with people. I'm not someone who can sit in the office. It works for me."
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