Keep Pandemic Planning On Customers' Radar, Post-H1N1
A couple of crates of hand sanitizers sit in storage at a building serviced by Team Clean Inc., a Philadelphia-based building service contractor. Those crates are a leftover relic of the H1N1 pandemic influenza scare of last year; they are also indicative of a cleaning industry still trying to keep the dangers of infectious diseases on the front of the minds of building owners and operators, many of whom have lost their interest in the topic.
"There was a precipitous drop in requests for the hand sanitizers. As time wore on, we got less and less demand for that and now we get very infrequent demands for it," says David Rivers, CEO of Team Clean.
Rivers is concerned with the general lack of interest in infectious diseases throughout his community, but concedes that flu and pandemic talk is seasonal and somewhat reactionary.
As H1N1, or swine flu, filled the headlines during the spring and fall of 2009, many BSCs worked overtime to fight the spread of the infectious diseases by scheduling more thorough cleaning procedures. They also distributed flyers and posters about those procedures and hygienic practices for occupants, retrained staff and handed out hand sanitizers.
But with the news media paying little to no attention to these infectious diseases as of the beginning of 2010, the cleaning professionals are left to keep the dangers of pandemic infections and how to minimize their impact in the minds of building managers.
"Right now today, it's talked very little about," says Roger Ford, director of operations at Team MJV, a Lafayette, Ind.-based BSC. "I think the media plays a big role as far as building awareness for the general public and for our customers, because you hear very little about this today. It's very low on their priority scale now."
Although the lack of attention concerns BSCs, there are several ways that they are trying to keep their clients and employees aware of the importance of infection control.
The first is simply being aware of what may be on the horizon in terms of infectious diseases. This is as easy as logging on the Web and checking out the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) site on a regular basis. The CDC site has a H1N1 page that is updated with information about the latest trends and outbreaks.
If you are providing services to a large number of facilities that encompass large numbers of people, it's common sense to assume that someone is going to get sick with whatever illnesses are being passed around at a given time or place, says Al Berry, president of American Services Corp., Chester, Pa.
Industry professionals are cognizant of contagious diseases such as influenza that may be having an outbreak, Berry says. Monitoring appropriate public health websites is key to staying educated, he adds.
Perfection Commercial Services Inc., a BSC in Tekonsha, Mich., has created a Web page on its site that is dedicated to H1N1. Links go to the latest CDC and state of Michigan H1N1 information Web pages. The company also has information about the flu, correct hand washing techniques and procedures on isolation and quarantine on its site.
According to Don Kujawa, director of business development for the company, the H1N1 content on the website is an outgrowth of an attempt to empower the company's client base.
"The best thing we can do is let our customers know that we are 100 percent capable of handling anything that may come our way, but then to leave it in their hands to make a decision," Kujawa says. "Pretty much avoiding any type of scare tactics is what we have tried to do."
Team MJV found the best place to start and continue to be proactive in dealing with H1N1 is through a streamlined, structured approach of gathering, deciphering and passing along information.
"In order to (combat) anything like this, we have to educate ourselves," Ford says. "We started at the top, educating ourselves and our management team and started feeding the information to our customers. By doing that, we were very successful because we had the confidence that we needed to assist customers when the time came."
Team MJV keeps the threat of pandemics in the minds of its clients and those who work in their buildings with small laminated posters that promote hand washing and the use of hand sanitizer. Team MJV provides the posters at no charge to its clients, who are asked to encourage hand washing throughout their buildings.
"It's the biggest thing you can do, and the media was real big about it: hand washing, hand washing, hand washing," Ford says. "It's a very simple thing that we can help promote. We still get feedback today on how [pandemic prevention education] helps promote hand washing."
BSCs that clean schools, nurseries, day care centers and health care facilities have it easier in terms of keeping infectious diseases on the front of their clients minds. This is the natural result of who their end users are, such as parents of young children and health care workers, who continuously deal with the threat of infectious diseases.
"Being in the school and college arena, we tended to hear a little more about it and called in to remedy potential situations more so than in the broader sector of the economy," Berry says.
BSCs, particularly the ones that work in those sectors, experienced a deluge of inquiries and phone calls during the time that H1N1 was at its peak. These have also diminished, leaving behind a sense that some of the urgency and hand wringing was a much a part of public perception as it was a real concern. It also taught many in the industry that part of their job as a BSC is to pacify clients who have those concerns.
"A lot of it is political as much as it is necessary and it's staving off potential problems that may arise if you did nothing," Berry adds. "It's sending the right message to parents, students, facility and administrators that you are addressing a potential problem. The reality is that if you are properly cleaning on a nightly basis and using quaternary disinfectants you are already mitigating potential problems."
The wrecked economy in Michigan and other parts of the country has also been a factor on how sales staffs have handled H1N1 flu. Perfection Commercial Services has restructured some of its cleaning schedules at certain sites to combat H1N1, keeping in mind the cost impact that extra work may have on their clients.
"Budgets are the biggest concern right now in this state. I think it is being avoided because there is a cost attached to it, too," Kujawa says. "As far as H1N1 goes, the obvious thing is that you need products to handle it or additional man-hours to handle it and there is a cost attached to that."
Pandemic fears strengthen the bond between cleaning staffs, upper management and clients throughout the industry. Upper management personnel now are more likely to concentrate on the process of cleaning high-touch areas such as faucet handles, door knobs and telephone receivers.
Emphasis on Training
Another residual impact that has been felt throughout the industry is a re-emphasis on training cleaning crews and the quality of cleaning that is performed.
Building service contractors have also concentrated more on the health of their personnel since outbreaks of flu and MRSA, or methacillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, started to make front page news in recent years. Training cleaning crews on using the right amount of cleaner on surfaces and re-enforcing the need to wear personal protective equipment such as rubber gloves and masks are a couple of the ways building service contractors are stressing the need for their employees to stay healthy.
"The people who, on a daily and nightly basis, are doing the work, cleaning the toilets, mopping the floors and vacuuming the carpets are our most important asset," Berry says. "Without them, we don't have an organization."
Staffs are now being trained not to touch their face, to protect cuts and scratches on their hands, to sneeze into their sleeves and to diligently wash their hands during their shifts.
"We took advantage of the threat of H1N1," Rivers says. "We exploit H1N1. We got ears, eyes and their minds open to something that was going to protect them."
Clients are more receptive to their service contractors and cleaning staffs when they have suggestions and concerns, especially when it comes to preventing pandemic flus. Finally, cleaning crews have a better sense of how their job impacts the overall health of those that work in the buildings that they clean.
"Cleaners are held in low regard. At our organization, we emphasize that they are important to their cleaning account. They are the first line of keeping the building healthy and the people in it healthy," Rivers says.
Brendan O'Brien is a freelance writer based in Greenfield, Wis.
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