Whether cleaning around hospital patients, children, allergy or asthma sufferers, effective cleaning procedures are increasingly important within healthcare facilities, K–12 schools and commercial offices alike.

By 2025, commercial building floor space is expected to exceed 100 billion square feet, representing a 46 percent increase over current levels.

In truth, proper facility care and maintenance that recognizes the importance of protecting valuable building assets while ensuring the safety of its occupants has and will continue to grow in importance.

Consider the following: It is estimated that 180,000 cleaning professionals are injured by the commercial cleaning products they use; respiratory system irritation and burns to eyes and skin make up the majority of these on-the-job injuries; building occupants and visitors commonly complain about odors and respiratory problems associated with cleaning products and processes; some occupants have asthma and other breathing disorders that are sensitive to particles in the air, volatile organic compounds and vapors produced by the cleaning process is being used around them; volatile organic compounds (VOCs) evaporate from cleaning products before, during and after their use, contributing to poor indoor air quality; and millions of dollars are spent annually for medical expenses and lost time wages due to these cleaning product chemical injuries.

With an increase in facility occupant sensitivities, and workplace accidents and injuries, building service contractors (BSCs) and industry professionals have and will continue to trend towards the implementation of green cleaning programs, with the results including lower risks for occupants and cleaner facilities. However, is greener really cleaner?

Oddly enough, traditional cleaning products are often more dangerous than the germs they are designed to kill. Indoor air pollution is as much as 2 to 5 times higher than outdoor pollution, on average, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The World Health Organization estimates that 30 percent of all buildings have problems with indoor air pollution, and further that 80 percent of cancers are related to environmental factors like toxins. At least one-third of cleaning products contain chemicals that are known to cause significant damage to occupants and the environment.

Studies demonstrate that chlorine bleach, ammonia and other cleaners release greenhouse gases and toxic vapors, many of which are suspected carcinogens. Hazardous chemicals have been known to remain on surfaces and/or airborne for hours, causing mild to serious symptoms including headaches, fatigue and asthma.

Green cleaning procedures are often quite similar to traditional methods. The differences are more a matter of focus and technique, and often rely upon understanding occupant needs and vulnerabilities, while incorporating the right products to mitigate exposure and unnecessary risk to those occupants.

Green cleaning vs. traditional cleaning methods

The fundamentals of green cleaning have evolved from initially being viewed as general replacement of traditional products to a more comprehensive approach incorporating changes in process, procedures, and product application, applied to the use of cleaning agents, equipment and consumable supplies.

What’s the value? Green cleaning is “process driven,” resulting in creating an effective marriage between products, tools, and equipment with sustainable cleaning practices. The objective is a healthier facility in which building occupants can learn, work and play while having the least environmental impact.

Effectively protecting the health and safety of janitors and building occupants requires a more strategic approach to cleaning. Today, facility managers and building service contractors can rely on widely used and accepted third–party certifications to further promote and validate sustainability and safe work processes. LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance (LEED-EBOM), ISSA’s CIMS-GB, Green Seal, EcoLogo or EPA’s Design for the Environment programs for chemicals; the Carpet and Rug Institute's Seal of Approval program for vacuum cleaners; or EPA's Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines.

Critical focal points

An equally successful and sustainable green cleaning program deployed by quality building service contractors is one that is measurable, manageable, and continuously improving.

Such a program would recognize the following key minimum focal points:

• Proper Use of Chemicals: a highly efficient method of ensuring that chemicals are diluted properly through an appropriate measuring system that meets or exceeds industry, facility and company standards. Utilize chemicals that meet Green Seal standards.

• Entryways: added emphasis by way of process, task and procedure is given to entry points that produce the bulk of facility contaminants.

• Communications: incorporating appropriate processes to identify “vulnerable populations” that may be affected by cleaning activities.

• Carpet Maintenance: an optimized program that emphasizes routine maintenance to ensure the removal of trapped contaminants; deploy cleaning equipment that meets standards while protecting carpeted surfaces and diminishing contaminants.

• Hard Floor Care: program optimized to emphasize routine, scheduled maintenance to extend finish life; leverage industry innovations in green cleaning equipment to extend asset life while diminishing both surface and airborne contaminants.

A highly successful green cleaning program would measure its success based upon the results it achieves, with the measure recognizing the goal of protecting the health and safety of building occupants.

The successful program would incorporate the following initiatives in support of the referenced focal points:

Equipment Guidelines

•  Vacuum cleaners are certified by the Carpet and Rug Institute “Green Label” Testing Program for vacuum cleaners and operate with a sound level of less than 70dBA.

•  Carpet extraction equipment used for restorative deep cleaning is certified by the Carpet and 
Rug Institute’s “Seal of Approval” Testing Program for deep-cleaning extractors.

•  Powered floor maintenance equipment, including electric and battery-powered floor buffers and burnishers, is equipped with vacuums, guards and/or other devices for capturing fine 
particulates and operates with a sound level of less than 70dBA.

•  Propane-powered floor equipment has high-efficiency, low emmisions engines with catalytic
converters and mufflers that meet the California Air Resources Board (CARB) or Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for the specific engine size and operate with a sound level of less than 90dBA.

• Automated scrubbing machines are equipped with environmentally preferable gel batteries.

• Powered equipment is ergonomically designed to minimize vibration, noise, and user fatigue.

• Equipment is designed with safeguards, such as rollers or rubber bumpers, to reduce 
potential damage to building surfaces.

Disposable Supplies Guidelines

•  US EPA Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines for Janitorial Paper and Plastic Can Liners.

•  Green Seal GS-09, for paper towels and napkins.

•  Green Seal GS-01, for tissue paper. 

Process-Oriented Guidelines

• Conserving energy, water, and other resources while still providing a clean and sanitary environment.

• Eliminating phosphates and aerosol products.

• Educating, training, and motivating custodial staff to work in an environmentally responsible manner.

• Using cleaning products that meet Green Seal standard GS-37 or products with low-volatile organic compounds (VOC) whenever applicable.

• Using HEPA filters when vacuuming to aid indoor air quality (IAQ).

• 3rd party certified chemicals through Green Seal and EcoLogo.

• Use of 100 percent recyclable paper towels with a minimum of 20 percent post consumer content.

• Use of color-coded microfiber rags to mitigate the risk of cross contamination.

• Paper products are derived from rapidly renewable resources.

Does this mean we need to make a significant monetary investment, or otherwise discontinue the use of current cleaning equipment and supplies?

The good news is, absolutely not! Meeting green standards as a matter of practice, and in support of protecting cleaning staff and occupant safety, does not require exclusive use of green products, chemicals, and equipment.

Rather, building service contractors should incorporate a Green procurement policy that places added emphasis on the purchase of green equipment and supplies. Furthermore, green cleaning is often considered cost-neutral, meaning, some increases in training cost, chemicals, documentation, equipment and supplies will be offset by gains in productivity.

In reality, not all facility environments are created equal, no more then occupant needs identical. Successful BSCs will recognize this reality, and customize a program that incorporates specific standards for cleanliness, environmental stewardship and occupant safety, into all facets of their programs and operations.

The greatest benefit in doing so is simply a cleaner and healthier facility for cleaning staff, customers, patients, students, and employees.

John Garrett serves as CEO of Facilities Management Advisors LLC, a consulting advisory firm focused on the facility services, corporate real estate, and building operations industries. A published author and frequent speaker at conferences and workshops, Garrett has conducted operational assessments and growth initiatives with Fortune 500 companies totaling in excess of 450 MSF. Visit their website at www.fmadvisors.com, email them at info@fmadvisors.com, or call toll free (888) 656-0740.