It would be impossible not to notice: a cleaner room is more visually appealing. And a cleaner building is more pleasant for both tenants and guests. But when you think about it – and housekeepers think about it often – the real point to cleaning these spaces has much more to do with health than it does with aesthetics.

The connection between cleanliness and health is something that professionals in the housekeeping industry appreciate and strive for. Now, though, the general public is increasingly aware of the correlation, and better understands the significant role cleaning plays regarding public health. Executive facility management, on the other hand, realizes that viruses like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) or Legionnaires disease don’t only make people ill, they also damage local and regional economies.

“The health aspect of cleaning is in the public eye more now,” says Anthony Trombetta, director of sales for ISSA. “Cleaning for health is a notion that has always been around but it’s never gotten this much attention until the last couple of years.”

Indeed, ISSA has been working to develop a new and definitive management standard – it’s currently open for public review at Part of the proposed standard lists a series of specific instructions related to cleaning with an emphasis on the health of building occupants.

“We received input from different organizations throughout the process,” notes Trombetta, “and health was one of the things that kept coming up as a crucial part to any standard.”

Clean, cleaner, cleanest
The public health components of ISSA’s new standard are being examined, in particular, by the housekeeping managers of some of the most heavily populated spaces in the nation: medical centers, busy airports, shopping malls and school systems. And why not? These facilities vary in terms of market and service, but they all deal daily, or even hourly, with a staggeringly high number of people.

More than 2.5 million travelers pass through Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport each month, for example. Large hospitals can serve some 500 in-patients a week while employing more than 1,500 doctors. Other venues, such as mega-malls, open their doors to more than 10,000 shoppers on a busy day. The health of every visitor, patient, or student depends in part on extensive, efficient, and appropriate housekeeping.

Market-by-market and venue-by-venue, housekeeping managers work with protocols designed to meet the challenges of responsible, health-conscious cleaning.

Some cleaning procedures simply reflect common sense. Housekeepers should practice good personal hygiene, for instance, and should wash their hands after cleaning one area and before continuing on to the next. Walk-off mats should be used at all entrances, should be in good shape, and should be cleaned regularly. Time-saving equipment, such as a battery-operated wet vacuums, can make quicker work of cleaning high-volume areas. And tools such as microfiber mops reduce the spread of germs and can leave behind fewer health-damaging pathogens.

Taking the next step
Depending on the type of facility, it’s easy to determine the need for additional cleaning steps. The housekeeping manager of a busy airport, for example, will know to schedule personnel with an eye on flight arrivals.

“We know when we’ll have a heavy population of people coming off the planes,” says Everett McDonald, housekeeping supervisor at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in Boone County, Ky., “so we know when to overload certain areas, such as restrooms, with staff.”

But often health-conscious cleaning protocols can, and should, be rigorous and complex. It’s a fact, for example, that bodily fluid spills are a routine part of hospital life. And because so many diseases can be carried in the fluids of a human body, it’s also a fact that the stakes are high when it comes to making sure each spill is properly cleaned. The threat posed by the hepatitis B virus is a case in point. This virus can survive for a full week in even a small amount of dried blood.

As a result, cleaning professionals confronted with a blood or fluid spill actually begin to deal with that spill long before it happens by taking preventive measures designed to protect the health of the people inside their buildings.

Some steps include making sure that every flat surface in an examining room is disinfected daily with a cleaner approved for use against HIV, as a minimum. Then, when a spill does happen there is an increased likelihood that pathogens will be killed on contact and the spill will be less dangerous to clean.

Even before that step, though, cleaning professionals can reduce the chances of causing a whole host of (unrelated) respiratory problems by wiping, not spraying, the cleaning solution onto each surface. And to prevent any number of health risks, it is important to store chemicals in a locked cabinet so that building occupants can’t get into it, and harmful vapors cant get out.

Finally, to make sure these and other health-related precautionary measures are taken, cleaning personnel are trained and re-trained to treat every bodily fluid spill as infectious waste and to clean it according to the strictest standards.

“Proper disinfectant with proper employee training is the number-one concern for a housekeeping supervisor,” says Jack VanReeth, manager of environmental services at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa.

Because such spills occur in places other than hospitals, cleaning supervisors at airports and universities, for example, report using many hospital-level standards of housekeeping.

“All you have to do is look at the rise in respiratory illnesses in kids and you see the need for education about what people are breathing in,” says John Vogelsang, director of facility services at Illinois Central College in Peoria, Ill. “Cleaning for health means more to me than almost anything.”

Assess your program
There are many ways for supervisors to make sure that a sparkling room is also a healthy room. One of the first and easiest steps a housekeeper can take is to use green cleaning products and techniques whenever possible. Because it’s more environmentally friendly, green cleaning works hand-in-hand with healthy cleaning practices. Improved products, such as less-toxic chemical cleaners, improve both personal and environmental health simply by lowering exposure to, and reducing the harmful side-effects of, the previous generations of cleaners.

Assessments, too, can be especially important. Some studies now provide baseline measurements of such airborne contaminants as mold and bacteria. Others can chart the number of illnesses – in a school, for example – before and after interventional cleaning steps are taken.

These types of assessments allow housekeepers to know whether cleaning improvements, such as more frequent vacuuming or more effective vacuum filtration, are needed. Assessments can also provide evidence of improvement when it happens.

Still, other assessments are costly and advanced, but experts say that they can be worthwhile. Industry professionals note that more and more high-traffic facilities are using sophisticated assessment strategies.

One large airport, for example, has invested in expensive equipment in order to test the level of cleanliness of the airport’s floors. They’re using the equipment to get a baseline measurement on both dirty and cleaned floors. In turn, the testing provides information that helps determine what types of fine-tuning measures are needed.

Importance of teamwork
Another aspect to cleaning for health is one which experts say can’t replace any equipment, no matter how high-tech. Without communication and teamwork, they caution, even the best strategies will fail.

“One thing to keep in mind is that the vast majority of all health care facilities have only budgeted labor to do a disinfectant cleaning of patient areas once a day,” explains VanReeth. “So it is critical, during the other 23 hours of the day, that hospital staff communicate to housekeeping. Otherwise, something like a spill could go unnoticed, posing a health hazard for hours until the housekeeping staff comes back the next day.”

Operations and maintenance are two additional departments that housekeepers need to keep a handle on. “Sometimes in housekeeping we get blamed for things that in actuality are maintenance issues,” notes Vogelsang. “Breathing problems caused by duct work not being cleaned properly, that type of thing.”

Solutions to problems that involve either missed or mis-communication, say experts, often call for creating a team of health and safety experts from appropriate departments. Manufacturers can prove helpful when it comes to housekeeping’s role in public health, because their work on research and development of new products and equipment is geared toward supplying the needs of this increasingly health-conscious industry.

Mary Erpenbach is a freelance writer based in Rockford, IL.