Building service contractors know that their janitors do more than remove workaday grime from surfaces such as floors and countertops. Janitors also serve as a facility’s first line of defense against a whole host of other problems. They kill germs, so diseases don’t spread. They vanquish dust, so sensitive equipment doesn’t clog up or break down. They eradicate mold, so allergic clients don’t suffer. In fact, each time they clean a building, janitors play an integral role in boosting the safety and efficiency of everything and everyone in it. Yet, cleaning professionals, despite their best intentions, can also play a role in cross-contaminating the very buildings they clean.

“It’s something that you’re always dealing with,” says Jim Thompson, owner of A-1 Building Services in Wyoming, Mich. “It’s why you’re wearing gloves, making sure you are using the proper disinfectant, washing your hands, keeping designated equipment for designated areas, and properly cleaning and maintaining that equipment.”

Neglect any of these or other janitorial precautions, warns Thompson, and the risk of a chain reaction of contamination automatically increases. Viruses that lurk in a rest room could hitch a ride to a water cooler down the hall, for example. Or, bacteria from food could be transferred — in one swipe of a wipe — to napkin dispensers or lunchroom table tops. In fact, unless janitors are properly trained and equipped, they might easily and unwittingly spread or track pathogens from one area of a building into another — or even from one building into the next — every time they use a mop or empty a wastebasket.

Training day
There’s much a BSC can do to reduce the risk of janitorial cross-contamination. Experts recommend training, first and foremost. Followed by re-training. And, reinforced with more training.

“Training is really important,” says Scott Robinson, vice president of safety services for ABM in San Francisco. “We train people on which chemicals to use. The procedure we go through in each building. What each route is going to be. When we empty the garbage. Training is critical and we do a lot of it at ABM.”

Robinson adds that two aspects of cross-contamination training, in particular, should receive special attention. The first is explaining the reasons why specific tasks need to be done in certain ways.

“Telling people ‘why’ has to be part of training,” he says. “It’s so obvious, but it has to happen.”

Janitors who understand the purpose of, for example, taking a certain route through a building will be less likely to prop open the wrong door — and unintentionally contaminate the air flow or change the temperature in a sensitive work area such as a pharmaceutical clean room.

The second aspect of training that Robinson emphasizes is customer involvement. BSCs should train janitors to meet the expectations of the customer, of course. But the operator should take care, says Robinson, to have the customer spell out what those expectations are.

“It shouldn’t just be left up to the provider to do what everybody else is doing because that may cause a big problem,” he says.

Dick Anderson, the safety director for St. Louis-based Mitch Murch’s Maintenance Management, agrees that employee training and customer involvement should be standard operating procedure for any BSC. He says his company has always worked that way.

“At a start-up we all meet the day before for a big training session,” he says. “We’ll have chemical people talk about the hazards of the chemical and how to apply it. We’ll have the machine people talk about machines.”

Anderson follows up with monthly safety lessons and a monthly magazine on safety. Many of his efforts involve educating janitors and clients about the dangers of cross-contamination.

“We have training films, too,” he explains. “One of them is a safety film I made that teaches a lot about the biohazard of germs.”

An ounce of prevention
Because his company cleans everything from office buildings to skyscrapers to theme parks, Anderson has had a lot of experience with what works when it comes to keeping his janitorial staff from cross-contaminating the buildings they clean.

“We require janitors to wear rubber gloves when they’re cleaning restrooms,” he says, “and they can’t wear them out of the restrooms, not even to empty the trash.”

Sometimes his clients, such as pharmaceutical manufacturers, need to take extra precautions against cross-contamination. In those instances Anderson has his janitors use different colored mops for different buildings so there’s no chance of introducing contamination from outside any of the buildings. Oftentimes, the color-coding system is in place within those buildings, too.

“We’ll have different colored mops for different places within the buildings,” he notes.

Thompson’s client base also requires that his company focuses more extensively on reducing bacterial and viral cross-contamination.

“Medical is what we specialize in,” he explains. A-1 services a variety of commercial and industrial buildings, along with four different hospital networks, and large medical equipment manufacturers. He says microfiber mopping systems work well to prevent cross-contamination, especially in medical facilities where both the risks and the consequences of cross-contamination are heightened.

“One system we use is a two-way pole with a plastic head on the bottom and a tank in the center where you put your cleaning solution,” says Thompson. “You’re avoiding that whole issue of dipping a mop into dirty water. Also, we have our folks change out the mop-heads for each bathroom that they do. You end up going through a little more in laundry, but you’re doing a much better job of preventing cross-contamination.”

Cleaners in less-sensitive facilities, such as offices and industrial plants, can still use these tips to prevent cross-contamination in their facilities. The right tools, equipment and training can help janitors in any market keep facilities safe and customers healthy.

Mary Erpenbach is a business writer in Rockford, Ill.