By Allen Rathey

Indoor spaces are three-dimensional, so why is cleaning typically one-dimensional, relegated to surfaces? In part, it’s because:

1. Many in the industry focus on visible soil rather than whole environment contamination because that is what many were taught and what the public expects (what they have been taught).

2. There is little understanding of how to bridge disciplines between workers tasked with removing visible contamination to environmental specialists concerned with invisible contamination on surfaces, in the air, and ending up in people touching or working in cleaned areas.

3. While surface or appearance cleaning is widely monetized — three-dimensional, holistic, 360-cleaning for healthier indoor spaces is not; or at least not in relation to its value.

Broadening, Tightening the Focus

As science has progressed, the definition of “clean” and  “dirty” has too. 

In his 1994 book, "Protecting the Built Environment, Cleaning for Health," Dr. Michael Berry wrote: “Cleaning is the process of removing pollutants from the environment and putting them in their proper place…In cleaning, we find, identify, capture, contain, remove, and dispose of pollutants. Cleaning is not diluting. Cleaning is removing.”

Berry broadened the definition of pollutants to include invisible soils, but the commercial cleaning sector has not caught up with this 30-year-old lesson in the context of a business model.

A solid business approach means departing from vague statements or absolutist thinking, such as when “cleaning for health” is a public relations slogan, or the idea that “there is only one healthy way” to achieve this or that task, “which is buying this service or solution [we happen to be selling].”

Health, like fitness, exists on a continuum — "I may be fit and healthy enough to jog around the block, but not to run a marathon" — so desired outcomes for “facility fitness” should be specific, evidence-based and in context. Given the hyperbolic, semi-meaningless nature of “We clean for health,” it would be better to say, “Our business is focused on healthier cleaning,” and then be very specific about what that means.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the American quality expert, explained the need for context and purpose when setting goals, using this analogy: “If someone asks me to clean that table…I don’t know what to do unless I know what that table will be used for.” 

The Indoor Health Council is developing an Evidence-based Cleaning for Health program and certification to assist cleaning professionals to define their program in context, then practice and promote it to the right customers with a range of different needs. The most important need in this broader but tighter focus is to first take care of the worker’s health and professional development as a bridge to a better way.

Bridging the Disciplines

Dirt rarely stays on one geometric plane, so why does cleaning? The answer is that there is no reliable educational bridge across the chasm between cleaning for appearance and evidence-based cleaning for health — for example, between disrespect and greater respect for people who clean professionally. Self-esteem expert Susyn Reeve believes it is vital to focus on the inner environment of the people who are responsible for both the design and the implementation of healthier indoor spaces. This includes:

• A clear understanding of what a healthy inner and indoor environment is.

• Clarity about each person’s role in contributing and maintaining that environment.

• An appreciation that every person in the system — from the CEO to the janitors — is vital to assure a healthier workplace.

Two key phrases are “every person” and “the system.” Understanding how to integrate the elements of the system by bridging disciplines — HVAC, human resources, janitorial, C-suite, etc. — is key to monetizing it. There is a strong case to be made that evidence- and health-based cleaning in an integrated approach with other operations produces specific gains with both direct and indirect financial benefits. 

Allen P. Rathey, Director of the Indoor Health Council, is an educator known for his expertise in healthy facilities. With a commitment to fostering safe and thriving indoor environments worldwide, Rathey has curated an exceptional advisory group of accomplished scientists, PhDs, and other experts in facility management and public health.