The ideal stage for a crime scene – after normal business hours, a lack of witnesses, and a location off the beaten path – also describes the working conditions of most cleaning employees.

Crime can happen in any type of facility, whether it’s a well-to-do office park or a sports arena in a crime-ridden neighborhood. While building service contractors shouldn’t let conjecture rule their every move, it still is wise to consider ways to make any work situation as safe as they can for employees. Offering a few basic tips regarding personal safety on the job could be more beneficial to staff than contractors might realize.

Educating your employees
Some BSCs have a formal in-house training program in place to deal with potential crime. Jani-King employees attend an “Employee Safety Security and Awareness” orientation that introduces them to various protective measures they can take, says Doug Hickfang, hospitality director for the Addison, Texas-based company. They walk workers through the process of filing a “First Report of Incident” document as soon as possible when a crime has occurred. Included in the report are the suspect’s physical features, who was present, and the time, date, location and alleged activity.

But when telling staff how to handle situations they may find dangerous, BSCS must remember not to set strict standards that could do more harm than good. Sometimes you need to let the employee use their best judgement in the spur of the moment, says Timothy Parker, owner of Advanced Cleaning Systems in Verona, Wis.

“There’s that tendency in our society to do that, for someone 3,000 miles away to set a rule of what to do in a split-second decision,” he says. “It’s not like I can tell an employee, if there’s a robbery, ‘Hide under a desk.’”

Taking this into consideration, Terry Woodley, vice president of Woodley Building Maintenance in Kansas City, Mo., simply advises his 700 employees that if a crime occurs they should contact 911 and take whatever precautions are necessary.

“We would caution them to not do anything to put themselves in jeopardy,” he says.

BSCs also may need to weigh safety when considering potential client locations, adds Parker. He chose not to pursue one potential customer, after visiting one of the company’s buildings which was in what he considered “too questionable of a neighborhood.”

Since then, he also has taken steps to ensure his employees won’t be crime victims no matter what kind of facility they service. He has done so by placing outdoor waste containers a few steps from doorways and making sure all building entrances are well-lit.

Tips to consider
There are a few suggestions BSCs can take to promote an environment where employees are careful and aren’t afraid to report any suspicious circumstances .

• Try to have workers park as close as possible to a building entrance.

At the hotel properties Jani-King cleans, in-house security staff escort cleaning employees to their cars after their shifts end.

• Once workers are in the building, they may want to immediately lock the door behind them, if applicable. They also should not let someone into the building who does not have a key card or key. Instead they should find a fellow employee who can identify the individual. Also BSCs should encourage staff to report suspicious persons to their supervisor or to the police if they feel threatened.

• Cleaners should keep emergency exit doors firmly closed and not propped open, a common activity during trash duties or when bringing in large cleaning equipment.

“If you leave the door propped open, you’re just inviting the wrong element in,” says Hickfang.

• The building alarm may be a cleaner’s best friend if he or she is witness to a crime.

“Get that pushed and get out of Dodge,” advises Dave Howard, chief executive officer of A&E Groups, a Sacramento security consultant. “If confronted by the robber I would do everything he said. You want to do everything you can to make sure you’re not at threat.”

Along those same lines, accidentally setting off an alarm by escaping through an emergency exit can be a good way to startle a perpetrator into leaving.

• BSCs should consider evacuation drills in some facilities to help staff locate emergency exits to use in the event of a fire, intruder or other event, suggests Howard.

“If we already have it in our mind, chances are we’re going to do it under pressure,” he says.

• Make sure all employees know how to use the building’s phone systems or other communications devices.

• Discourage cleaners from wearing headphones to listen to music; instead, they might use a hand-held radio if the situation permits it, so they can keep their ears open to outside noise.

• To reduce theft, Hickfang suggests BSCs mark the customer’s equipment, as well as their own, with a serial number, model number and the company name.

“If you are using any kind of expensive equipment, make sure it is marked,” says Hickfang, and store it in a locked closet when not in use.

Also, while desktop computers tend to be too bulky to smuggle easily off a property, BSCs should keep an eye on high-tech portables.

• If cleaners do witness or are victims of crime, have them immediately call the police. If possible, they should try to seal off the room or area where the crime took place to preserve evidence.

Also, discuss what employees should do if the media, customers or curious onlookers confront them about any incident they may have been involved with, suggests Hickfang. Some BSCs may want the workers to avoid talking to anyone, or at least to choose their words carefully to avoid admitting liability if they must talk to others following a crime.

Kristine Hansen, a Madison, Wis.-based business writer, is a frequent contributor to Contracting Profits.

The cleaner did it: Addressing crimes as well as customer concerns
While security statistics continuously show that less than 1 percent of all crimes committed in commercial facilities are the fault of cleaning staff, the general population continues to hold cleaners in high suspicion when a workplace crime is committed. And, unfortunately, there are those few situations where a cleaner actually is the one carrying out a crime. So building service contractors not only must prepare their workers for potential danger, but they also find themselves trying to convince customers that the majority of cleaners are not suspect individuals.

“The biggest issue, from a security standpoint, is helping property owners or building managers feel comfortable about who’s in their buildings,” says Terry Woodley, vice president of Woodley Building Maintenance in Kansas City, Mo. “That’s our biggest challenge.”

Woodley recently started conducting deeper background checks on its own employees, to further assure the customer that its facility would be cleaned only with trusted persons.

Once you have trustworthy workers, training your employees to properly handle and respond to a crime can help protect lives and property. One way to do so is to look to a security specialist for help in implementing a training program or just getting solid safety tips. BSCs also should consider including any safety and security training information in job bids to make customers feel more at ease with who they are hiring.

Contractors also should know how they wish to respond if a customer expresses suspicion regarding a cleaning worker and a potential crime. BSCs should have a policy for investigating allegations that don’t place blame until there is evidence, yet without affronting the customer or employee in question.

When one Texas contractor was told his cleaner had stolen a very expensive computer chip, he says it was obvious the person in question hadn’t been involved. But since he couldn’t brush off a serious customer concern or falsely accuse his worker, he drove to a local dump where he suspected the chip had been taken accidentally in the trash and sifted through bags until he located the item.

“Not only did I find what the customer wanted and was able to clear my employee’s name, I did so without hurting our client relations,” he says.

If investigations uncover the cleaner did commit a crime, then contractors need to take proper measures to address the issue to the customer’s satisfaction, while taking into account labor laws that dictate how to reprimand a worker and properly report the crime.