Now is as good a time as any to buckle down and investigate the parts of a custodial department that need changing to ensure the success of the custodial staff, facility and health prevention programs that come standard with the work. A good place to start the process of investigation is with handheld tools, such as brooms, brushes and mops.

“I think if you were to sit at a college or university with people that oversee the custodial departments and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to talk about handheld tools,’ they’d all be puzzled. That topic is probably low on managers’ lists,” says John W. Vogelsang, director of facilities services at Illinois Central College in East Peoria.

“We in management sometimes forget what it’s like to be on the front line,” he adds. “Go out there and watch your people clean and you’ll see how often they use a handheld tool and how important it is to them.”

Upon observation, it’s easy to understand why handheld tools are so important to the average custodian. First off, brooms, brushes and mops are some of the oldest and most familiar tools in a cleaners arsenal. Secondly, they are a flexible option. Rather than having to lug several large machines around a facility, a cleaner can take all the handheld tools that are needed throughout the day and place them on a single cart.

Product Innovations

The truth is, even with magnificent cleaning machines, “handheld tools will always be around,” says Vogelsang. Some of them are irreplaceable. Brushes and baseboard tools are a few of the obvious, but what about mops and brooms?

George Kom, facility manager of Idaho State University, Pocatello, and his trio of seasoned custodians, Jennifer Otte, Lauretta Taylor and Penny Miller, say mops and brooms are necessary “when your working in small areas.”

The traditional string mop is great for these areas, as well as sticky situations on hard floors, like grease in kitchens and ice melt in entrance ways. But, compared to their floor machine counterparts, mops and brooms might require a bit more elbow grease.

With harder scrubbing comes more strenuous work, which results in additional physical strain on the custodian. Some of the best improvements in hand tools came with the introduction of new shapes and options for wet or dry mopping systems. Manufacturers hoped these advancements would help improve cleaning and in return, lessen the strain put on the custodian.

The introduction of microfiber was one advancement that has proven to improve the level of clean and reduce stress on cleaning workers.

“We’ve moved to microfiber in a lot of areas and we’ve had some good results,” says Richard Wucherer, director of environmental and housekeeping services for United Hospital Systems out of Kenosha, Wis.

Although this is the case in many facilities, microfiber is not the only improvement to the handheld market. Ergonomic products, nicknamed “ergo” products, are also making their statement in the industry. Yes, microfiber and flat mop systems help to make the work easier on custodians, but those systems focus on the head of the tool. “Ergo” products directly relate to the handle, which makes sense because the handle is what the custodian grips when using the tool.

Wider handles for easier gripping, flexible handles for angle cleaning and longer handles for taller custodians are among the successful “ergo” products available.

With the implementation of new tools such as these, it is essential to stress the importance of communication and training.

Both Wucherer and Kom agree that advancements to the handheld market have increased efficiencies, but with new systems brings new problems. Wucherer’s staff uses the wet mop microfiber system that holds the chemicals conveniently in the mop handle. He says it’s great to have, but “we’ve had some issues with the spring loaded button that dispenses the fluid and problems with breakage on the bottom.”

Kom’s department has had similar issues with his flat mop waxing system. “The mop is great for waxing, especially with the dispenser that you put on your back and just push the button to dispense.” But, he added that the button that dispenses the wax has rubbed fingers raw.

With the right communication between staff, director and manufacturer, fixing these potential problems is possible.

For instance, Kom and his trio communicated to the manufacturer that the dispensing button was problematic on his waxing system. The manufacturer responded by developing a handle that was angled in the upper mid-section to make pushing and pulling the tool easier on the custodian’s back, shoulders and hips and moved the dispensing button lower on the handle.

Employee Training

In addition to communication with the manufacturer, open communication and training within the cleaning department is essential to the success and safety of the cleaning team.

Wucherer has opened communication within his facility by taking advantage of Web network tools through United Hospital Systems’ intranet (internal internet) services, where he offers Web-based training certification programs for his custodial staff. Though he hasn’t made the use of microfiber or “ergo” handheld products mandatory, the certified programs are.

When it comes to hand tools, Vogelsang has also made safety, skills and awareness programs mandatory for his staff.

“Training is the heart and soul of what you need to do,” he says. “We talk about indoor air quality and stress that the cleaning department is an important cog in the indoor air quality issue.”

Kom agrees that training is essential — even on tools as common as brooms, brushes and mops.

“You just keep going over and over the skills with the staff,” he says. “We train our people to stand straight up, keep the mop close to you and swing it in a figure eight motion, not back and forth.”

Keeping up with the latest gear is also important to the success of a custodial staff and facility, but sometimes custodians don’t see it that way.

“It’s sometimes a real challenge trying to switch over a housekeeper from her mop and her bucket to a microfiber system,” says Wucherer.

Simply stated, change isn’t always easy. According to Vogelsang, sometimes custodians don’t even want to use the right tool for the job, regardless of whether it will produce the best result. He adds that the root of those problems lie in the heart of the worker: his ethics, the pride he takes in his work and his measure of self-importance.

Thankfully, those personal issues can be improved with positive reinforcement or simply communicating with the staff about the importance of their industry and the work they do. Managers should also demonstrate how the proper use of hand tools can reduce stress and cleaning times, as well as improve productivity and ease-of-use.

“The bottom line is, it starts at the top — with management,” says Vogelsang. “Those of us in management need to understand what it means to be a leader and we need to get our people to understand why they do things, not just how.”

Gabriel Phillips is a freelance writer based in Union Grove, Wis.