A recent debate has been waged in our local newspaper, in Salt Lake City, between health care providers and insurance companies trying to take credit for the increased life expectancy among Americans. The doctors have been arguing that the medical profession should take the credit for all their advancements in the past century. Meanwhile, the insurance companies are claiming it’s their providing better access that should be thanked.

One local observer wrote that the reason for increased life expectancy should be credited to trash handlers. The article was titled, “Healthy? Thank the Garbage Man.” Now there’s a headline you don’t see every day. The writer explained how ancient Romans had a life expectancy of about 70 years, the same as most Americans today, if they lived in rural areas. For city dwellers, however, it was a whole different story. Those individuals were lucky to live past 30. What made the difference? Trash removal and cleaning were better on the farms of Italy than in the city of Rome.

Today’s modern buildings offer filtered water and air, beautiful lighting and furnishings, and plenty of opportunities for bacteria and other micro-organisms to grow.

Dr. Charles Gerba, of the University of Arizona, recently conducted a study of bacterial levels inside America’s offices. He found the average desktop is home to 400 times more infectious microorganisms than the average toilet seat!

You wouldn’t dream of eating your sandwich off a toilet seat, but the study found that your desk is probably much less sanitary. Gerba’s research team found that, unless desks are wiped with a disinfectant during the day, bacterial levels continued to climb.

“Without cleaning, a small area on your desk or phone can sustain millions of bacteria that can cause illness,” he says.
The professor and his team tested offices in New York, San Francisco, Tucson and Tampa – more than 7,000 workers. They divided the group in two. Half of them used disinfecting wipes to clean desks, phones and computers daily. The other half went about business as usual. The study ran from June through August of 2001.

In just two days the disinfecting group had 99.9 percent fewer bacteria than their counterparts. In fact, bacteria levels on the un-wiped desks grew between 19 and 31 percent in a typical day.

In recent years, indoor environments have been getting a lot of attention. Almost everyone’s heard of sick building syndrome.

But that’s not the entire story.

“There are no sick buildings, only sick people in mismanaged buildings,” Dr. Michael Berry, a former Environmental Protection Agency researcher, once said.

Cleaning is the process of locating, identifying, containing and properly removing and disposing of unwanted substances. It’s a science. While it may not be rocket science (or sometimes even a respected science) it is an exact science nonetheless. It demands attention to details such as dilution ratios and disinfectant kill times. At Janitor University, we teach a class on microbiology to help cleaning workers understand they are dealing with pathogenic microorganisms and cross-contamination. It’s basic science.

Even more than appearance, contractors should be concentrating on cleaning for health. Just because it looks clean doesn’t mean it is. (Take another look at your desk.) Cleaning for health requires you and your workers to have an understanding of what causes buildings to be dirty.

Make sure your cleaning staff has been properly trained and is using the right tools. Backpack vacuums with proper filtration, micro-fiber flat mops and cloths, and chemicals that are properly mixed are just a few. Enzymes, tiny microscopic organisms that eat and digest dirt while giving off much less harmful by-products, are moving to the forefront of cleaning products. Eventually, white glove inspections will be replaced by microscopic analysis.

The janitor has come “out of the closet” so to speak, and is playing a pivotal role in the health and safety of every person that enters the building. Because of that vital role, we need to consider cleaning processes more carefully than ever.

That’s great news for contractors who understand the science of cleaning and are using proven processes. If you’re not one of them, you’ve got a problem. W. Edwards Deming, the famous efficiency expert, once said, “Don’t expect the people who are digging holes to invent a better way of hole digging.” Your company is only as strong as your knowledge. Do whatever is necessary to find and use effective cleaning systems.

Cleaning workers who are cleaning for health have a different mindset. They are not “just a janitor.” They have a sense of purpose. Their mission is to improve the environment by removing dangerous contaminants, not by simply mopping the floor.

Cleaning for health is an advantage your company can take all the way to the bank. At first your clients might not understand what you mean when you talk about cleaning for health. But they’ll see the difference in their buildings and their employees. Then it’s only a matter of time before they won’t settle for anything less.

It’s time the members of the cleaning industry started taking credit for their fundamental roles in the increased life expectancy and health of the people in the buildings they clean.

John Walker is a regular Contracting Profits columnist. He is a veteran building service contractor; owner of ManageMen consulting services, Salt Lake City; and founder of Janitor University, a hands-on cleaning management training program.