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Researchers suggest that the order of health inspections may be more important than we realize.

Mike Pomranz
Updated May 17, 2019

It’s Friday afternoon, and I’m trying to get through this article so I can go out for drinks. That’s me being honest, but it’s also me being human: Often times, at the end of a long day, people just want to be done with work. That rule applies if you’re a writer or, yes, even a health inspector.

Yesterday, the Harvard Business Review published findings from a recent study on how to improve health inspections. As the site The Takeout points out, the gist of this research is that restaurants tend to get better scores when they’re inspected later in the day. “[Inspectors] take their jobs very seriously and believe strongly in their mission of protecting public health,” Maria Ibanez and Michael Toffel, who co-authored the study, explain. “But inspectors, like the rest of us, are human, and our research, which is forthcoming in the academic journal Management Science, revealed that their schedules can affect inspection quality.”

Specifically, their research showed that food-safety inspectors “tended to cite fewer violations at each successive establishment they visited through their day.” Additionally, the harder they worked in the morning, the laxer they tended to be in the afternoon. And places that were inspected beyond an inspector’s usual quitting time: they usually got the fewest violations of all. “This isn’t intended to insinuate that inspectors become lazy,” the authors write. “Rather, it demonstrates that inspections are exhausting to conduct.”

The study found another bias as well: Inspectors tended to be extra vigilant immediately after visiting a location with lots of violations — as if they’ve lost their faith in humanity and want to make sure the next guy doesn’t get away with anything either.

As a result, these researchers made a number of suggestions for improving the quality of health inspections. Venues that have the highest risk diners — like elementary schools and assisted living facilities — should be inspected earlier in the day, possibly even after a known violator, to increase vigilance. But more importantly, making sure inspectors have balanced days where they aren’t working on-site too late into the afternoon would likely also lead to more accurate scoring.

As the authors point out, 128,000 Americans go to the hospital each year due to foodborne illness. And about 3,000 people die. So getting the best work out of health inspectors can literally be a life or death situation. Unlike, say, missing a few typos in an article.

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