Building service contractors are more responsible for the health of building occupants than ever before. From an increased emphasis on healthy indoor environments, particularly in green buildings, to the emergence of new health threats in the form of infections and viruses, the pressure is on.

As new technologies and continued research are yielding new ways of thinking about the science of cleaning, BSCs have a wealth of data at their fingertips. But how does one separate fact from fiction, and trend from fad, as the world of cleaning changes?

In the past, science, or the use of data and measurements, played a bigger role in cleaning for certain facilities that require it. Cleaning an office building or a retail store, for example, did not have the same stringent specifications that were found when servicing a hospital, laboratory or cleanroom.

But with the emergence of viruses such as MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) in non-healthcare settings such as schools and fitness centers, it is more important than ever that BSCs be ready to prove the effectiveness of their cleaning methods and processes.

Unfortunately, says one BSC, it can take illnesses and even deaths to bring attention to the way cleaning can reduce health risks.

“Now you’re finding heartier organisms that are killing more people,” says Peter Sheldon, vice president of operations for Coverall Cleaning Concepts, Boca Raton, Fla. “When something like this happens, people will get on board — whether they’re BSCs or in-house cleaners or customers or whomever — and they’ll embrace this because they know it’s something they need to do. It’s something that can prevent people’s deaths.”

Science of Productivity

While it would be nice to be able to prove that cleaning was reducing nosocomial illnesses in hospitals or that it was helping buildings retain tenants, says Allen Rathey, president of InstructionLink/JanTrain Inc., Boise, Idaho, on the practical front end, BSCs should be studying productivity.

“I think the science of productivity is really the low-hanging fruit of cleaning science and we really haven’t addressed that as an industry other than saying, ‘Buy the right equipment and train your workers,’” he says. “And if we can cultivate the science of productivity, then we will be in a very good position to leverage the other aspects of cleaning science, such as microbial contamination removal, particulate containment and a bunch of other things that really tie into health issues, indoor environment, public hygiene types of issues.”

“The Official ISSA 447 Cleaning Times” is a good start for BSCs interested in the science of measurement, Rathey says. A backpack vacuum, for instance, cleans almost twice the square footage per hour as that of an upright, and that is a simple point of measurement BSCs can start with. Workloading is another way to quantify cleaning productivity and management by showing time savings.

“The more we can begin to identify quantifiable data, measurements, in its very fundamental form, that’s a kind of science,” Rathey says. “Productivity numbers: that’s science.”

Defining the role of science in cleaning is the first step toward understanding how it should be used by BSCs, but there is little consensus as to which path is the right path. Rather, most industry experts say there are many paths toward more scientific cleaning — and that the industry is inevitably moving in a scientific direction, similar to the shift to green that has happened over the past decade.

“This is a major change,” says Dr. Steve Spivak, chair of the Cleaning Industry Research Institute (CIRI) advisory council. “I am absolutely convinced we are not only on the right track but the track is straight and clear.”

How successful the integration of science will be, however, hinges largely on its affordability for BSCs to learn about and implement, and for customers to buy into and invest in. Any initiative taken on by a BSC will not succeed if is not financially realistic and profitable, says Rathey.

“I think those of us who believe in cleaning science — that is, determining specifically what we’re removing, how we’re removing it and what soil is remaining on surface that could impact health and other issues — as soon as we figure out how to find the fiscal benefit to what we’re doing, then we win,” Rathey says. “We complete the cycle. There’s the triple bottom line of people, planet, profit.”

The Old Way Just Won’t Cut It

CIRI, which is just three years old, is attempting to accelerate the integration of sound, proven science into cleaning. Spivak says that the old way — simply going through the motions of cleaning, then noting approved appearance — just isn’t going to work anymore.

“What CIRI has been doing as part of its mission and challenge is to demonstrate now that we need science to underpin both the science and the technology of cleaning, meaning: learning to recognize and understand which are the better and more efficacious products, what is really high efficiency or high performance cleaning vs. other processes which may not be as effective,” Spivak says.

Equipment is becoming more sophisticated in terms of its ability to create healthier environments. Using vacuums with HEPA filtration, for example, allows BSCs to cite the statistic that they remove at least 99.97 percent of airborne particles. As technology has made measurement systems and tools more affordable, BSCs have opportunities to test their facilities and their services.

“Commercial cleaning itself has always been a visual service that if it looks clean, it is clean,” Sheldon says. “What we recognize is that that’s not always the case, because there’s a tremendous amount of things we can’t see with the human eye.”

One tool that has become affordable is an ATP measurement device, which measures Adenosine Triphosphate, the energy molecule found in living cells after surfaces are cleaned. Air quality sampling and ultraviolet light testing are other ways BSCs can easily test their cleaning efficacy.

BSCs should be able to use measurements and science and technology to assess their own success, Spivak says. Doing that, and getting positive results, they can increase belief in themselves and their work, and show customers that cleaning has significant health value.

Confidence, in fact, is the number one issue that BSCs will have to improve upon in order to cross over from being seen as lowly janitors to being respected as health experts, Rathey says.

“What cleaning science is doing for us as an industry is, it’s giving us a platform for developing confidence,” he says.

BSCs should be constantly trying to educate themselves about the research and data that is out there — and should look for substantiation of claims on products and equipment.

Off To a Good Start

For contractors, the science of cleaning can be subjective, which could explain why it can be so controversial, says Paul Condie, director of operations at KBM Facility Solutions in San Diego. Over the past few decades, BSCs have seen some junk science and fads come and go, so it’s only natural that they are guarded and cautious.

But they probably have a better handle on science than they think, Condie says.

“A lot of them have their own data, and while that may not be backed up by a person with a Ph.D., it’s verifiable,” Condie says. “For example, workloading of buildings is a science. It can get real subjective, but most BSCs, when they go in to clean something, they have a formula they use, and it works for them.”

Just like other sciences, cleaning requires standards, he says, and organizations within the industry are working hard on them.

There are differences of opinion and disagreements about the science of cleaning, but that often is the dynamic of science. Most experts believe the more research that is done and data that is available, the more it will validate the science of cleaning and the industry as a whole.

A holistic approach toward cleaning takes science, sustainability, technology, healthy environments and good business sense into account — and all that may be a lot to commit to for BSCs, but it also may be what it takes to keep up in a changing industry. As viruses that have the capability to kill people continue to be communicable via surfaces, cleaning contractors have an obligation to do whatever they can to reduce risks to people in their facilities.

“We have a responsibility to ourselves and to our communities to be able to contribute to the health of our population so I see it as something that’s going to continue to change,” Sheldon says.

Some BSCs, especially small ones, may refuse to embrace science because they are afraid of change or intimidated by the initial investment. But Sheldon would encourage them to look at the bigger picture, at the value of cleaning.

Whether BSCs are ready for it or not, cleaning is morphing into a health science, which changes the game — but also provides opportunity for growth while elevating the respect level of janitorial companies.

“Putting science into the cleaning industry has the potential to elevate what we do to a more useful and noble function,” Rathey says. “Not that cleaning is not useful and noble as it is, but if all we do is sit around and do things the way we’ve done it for the last 50 years and we don’t make progress and begin to adopt the information and technology that’s available to us to begin to assess the quality of cleaning, then we’re really fooling ourselves that we’re going to be a respected part of the community.”