Preventing Cross-Contamination In Schools Protects Children, Staff
The goal of preventing cross-contamination is the same for all facilities: to reduce the spread of infectious diseases. However some facilities, such as K-12 schools, require more attention.
Germs can be transferred from surfaces to hands and vice-versa, and live on dry surfaces for several hours and moist surfaces for up to three days. A single germ can spread to dozens of children like wildfire. Kindergarteners all the way up to seniors in high school share just about everything with their classmates: school busses, desks, countertops, drinking fountains, bathrooms, cafeteria tables, gymnasiums, locker rooms and kitchens. All harbor bacteria and viruses in prime conditions for them to flourish.
“Children aren’t just miniature adults,” explains Steve Ashkin, co-author of “Green Cleaning for Dummies” and the founder of green cleaning consultancy The Ashkin Group, Bloomington, Ind. “They really are more vulnerable to environmental contaminants than adults. Pound per pound they eat, drink and breathe more than an adult, their bodies are rapidly developing, and their immune systems aren’t as developed.”
Building service contractors who take their role towards hygiene seriously can protect the health and welfare of students, teachers and other building occupants by reducing cross-contamination in a variety of ways — and in the process, amplify the importance of their role as a contractor to these stakeholders.
BSCs should talk with administration at the beginning of the school year, or at the beginning of the cold and flu season, about how they can help achieve wellness, Ashkin says. Contractors can also mention improving attendance goals through decreased absenteeism due to illness.
“There really is a financial impact to attendance,” he stresses. “Many public school districts — I’d even venture to say a majority — have a funding formula where they’re funded based on average daily attendance. Even a slight increase or decrease can mean tens of thousands of dollars of funding from the state. A BSC can help them keep those numbers.”
He also recommends talking with the school about posting signs in bathrooms explaining the 20-second washing standard and installing foam soap dispensers.
“Kids love foam soap, so it encourages hand washing,” Ashkin says. Hand-washing is a vital step in preventing cross-contamination — but BSCs can help in many other ways.
Disinfect It Right
Use disinfectant only where needed, and an all-purpose cleaner on lower-risk surfaces like most floors. This will also protect the bottom line because chemicals are not being wasted.
“Generally in a school you don’t have to use disinfectant everywhere,” says Allan Berkowitz, sales manager for Scrub Inc. in Chicago, which cleans private elementary and high schools. “We use a broad-spectrum germicide on high-touch items like doorknobs, desks, telephones, and fountains.”
Of course, ensuring that staff is letting the product work for the appropriate dwell time, which can vary by product, is critical.
However, disinfectants are not a final answer. The moment anyone touches something or sneezes, the space is contaminated again. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), germs are most often spread by hands, and enter bodies through the mouth, nose, eyes and breaks in the skin. It takes a comprehensive strategy to stand down populations of microbes. Educate staff on best practices, revisit training routinely and turn those practices into habits.
BSCs should be prepared to be proactive and reactive to health threats on surfaces, in the air and in fluids.
Having to remediate an area contaminated with bodily fluids isn’t uncommon in schools. Vomit, excrement, urine and blood should be partitioned off, and approached as communicable substances.
Bloodborne pathogen kits typically come with good instructions but it’s key to open up the box and demonstrate to staff how the kit is used, says Steve Marshall, director of quality control and safety for Harvard Maintenance Inc., New York City, which cleans several private schools. He tells employees to take all precautions since a child could have any kind of illness, and clean up with more than just a mop.
“After training I encourage any questions, and have them sign and date a sheet about what we went over. If there is language barrier, I have interpreters there,” Marshall says. That kind of communication establishes a comfort level for employees.
“It’s a sense of pride for them that they know this,” he says.
Harvard Maintenance has trained its cleaners in bloodborne pathogens and cleanup, and Marshall is sure to inform clients schools about that.
Surfaces in certain areas, such as play rooms and gymnasiums, need special attention. Ashkin recommends thinking of children’s playareas, especially toys, as you’d think about used dinner plates and silverware, and clean them periodically.
The CDC states that 5.5 million annual visits to doctors’ offices are due to skin infections, and in a school gym, there can be everything from athlete’s foot to HIV lurking. Wrestling mats, where sweat and bodily contact are high, are of particular concern.
“Some athletic directors are very particular about what they use,” Berkowitz says. “If there is a particular area of concern, like herpes, we clean with a phenolic — it’s a tuberculosis-preventer, too. It’s considered a broader spectrum product. Lot of times they’ll disinfect before rolling the mats up. Microfiber works nice in that situation as it’s easy to control the amount of moisture.”
Airborne contaminants such as dust, spores, allergens and even inorganic elements such as pesticides can be reduced with entryway matting, high-filtration vacuuming and microfiber dusting.
“It takes a village to raise a child,” says Berkowitz. “Everyone’s part of it, and staff needs to teach, encourage, and make it available.”
Simply paying attention to detail and keeping up with the demands of each job should be sufficient for BSCs to play their parts in keeping kids and staff in schools healthy.
Lauren Summerstone is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis.
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