The housekeeping industry has reached a critical crossroads. The environmental movement demands that products and practices be safer for the user and the overall environment. Yet recent outbreaks of infectious diseases and drug-resistant bacteria demand that cleaning be thorough and remove all pathogens.

How does a cleaning manager meet both requirements for both the department’s cleaners and building occupants?

Fortunately, new technologies have already been developed to help eliminate the need for harsh chemicals while remaining an effective deterrent to the spread of disease.

Best Practices Take Hold

For the past several years, custodial departments have been migrating toward processes and products that ensure the cleaner’s health and safety. Aerosols and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are being replaced by green and bio-based chemicals.

“The old days of mixing chemicals should be over,” insists Dannette Heeth, CEH, NREMT-B, IP and president of Dallas-based MedICS. “All chemicals should come in the proper proportion so you just add water. Eliminating the danger of chemical exposure “is really just common sense and education — we need to teach our workers the basics in chemistry.”

In addition to mixing solutions, cleaning managers must train workers to use them correctly. New, milder disinfectants may require a longer dwell time to effectively kill pathogens, which can remain on some surfaces up to 72 hours.

“It’s all about using the right chemicals on the right surface,” says Heeth. “Listen to the manufacturer’s recommendations and take advantage of your suppliers. They are the best teachers and know the latest and greatest methods.”

Disinfection requires not only the right solution, but friction as well. Experts add that the tool of choice to provide that friction is the microfiber towel.

“Microfiber scrapes the surface, so it actually scrapes off the bacteria,” says Ian Greig, CEO of Phoenix-based Daniels Associates.

The use of various colors of microfiber cloths prevent cross-contamination and let the cleaner know how often they need to be cleaned. Laundering microfiber is also easier because the weave is so tight, pathogens are simply washed off the surface.

Mixing Up Personal Chemistry

At Daniels Associates the approach doesn’t focus on how you clean, but what time of day.

“If you want to go green, you need to change when you clean,” says Greig.

When workers clean a building during the day, they can’t use noxious chemicals or invasive machinery that would interrupt the flow of business. Consequently, the less invasive methods provide a safer and healthier environment for the worker.

Another element of success at Daniels has more to do with personal chemistry.

“When cleaners work during the day, building occupants tend to keep their offices and cubicles cleaner,” says Greig. “They develop a personal relationship with the cleaner, and don’t want him or her to think badly of them.”

Greig also reports a higher level of self-esteem among day cleaners.

“At night, you’re a janitor,” he says. “During the day, you’re a fellow service worker.”

He adds that day cleaning requires a good personality and traditionally a uniform, which makes the workers feel good about themselves.

Day cleaning might also encourage better health habits on the part of the cleaners, which is important to Heeth.

“To keep the building safe, we have to insist that cleaners don’t come in when they’re sick, particularly with a fever or diarrhea,” she says. “We’re the first line of defense (against an outbreak).”

How Clean Is It?

No matter what time of day they clean, housekeeping staff members are generally very effective at removing visible dirt — but it’s what’s left behind that can make occupants sick.

“We’re so good at making sure the toilet bowl is clean, for example,” says Heeth, but something would have to go terribly wrong for an occupant to come into contact with the bowl. “The bio-load in bathrooms is far worse on soap dispensers and paper dispensers.”

Allen Rathey, president of Boise, Idaho-based Instruction Link/JanTrain, Inc., and Heeth are proponents of testing Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) levels to measure microbial loads and monitor the effectiveness of the cleaning process.

“ATP is the energy currency of all living things,” explains Rathey, “so anything organic has ATP in it.” That includes food residue, skin oil, blood and urine. These organic materials are what bacteria and other microbes feed on, so if there are high levels of ATP, there is a high risk of contamination by microscopic organisms.

ATP monitors measure bioluminescence — the same chemical reaction that fireflies use to emit their characteristic glow — to identify areas that haven’t been cleaned thoroughly. The technology has gained its foothold in the food industry, says Rathey, where microscopic food residue provides an environment for health-threatening bacteria to grow.

ATP monitors are available for as little as $1,000 — with prices rising along with the sensitivity of the device — but many cleaning departments are beginning to see their value.

“You really don’t know if what you’re doing is effective unless you are using an ATP monitor,” says Heeth. “The day is coming when the cleaning department will be held accountable for a disease outbreak in a building. And as an industry, we’re not trained well enough.”

ATP monitors have a great potential for making our environment healthier and preventing the spread of disease.

Electrolyzed Oxidizing Water

Once problem areas are identified, cleaners are still left wondering what green products can be used to reduce the bio-load. Some are beginning to turn to Electrolyzed Oxidizing Water.

Imagine taking pure water, adding a bit of sodium chloride and conducting a low-voltage current across it. The result is a ph-adjusted water that is effective in deactivating microbes, including E-coli, salmonella, listeria, staphylococcus, molds and yeasts, without leaving any dangerous residue or fumes.

“We’re using a lot of Electrolyzed Oxidizing Water after hearing about it in carpet cleaning,” says Heeth.

Electrolyzed water has long been accepted as a disinfectant by the Japanese food industry, where it is also touted as a health drink. Japanese doctors claim that it’s a natural antioxidant, can lower high blood pressure and reduce cholesterol.

“If it’s so good for your body, think how good it is for a building,” exclaims Heeth. It’s a great way to reduce the use of harmful chemicals. “If we’re keeping our employees safe, by default we are keeping the buildings’ occupants safe as well.”

Heeth also reports that electrolysis devices can be very affordable. Depending on the manufacturer, electrolyzed oxidizing machines can run $3,000 to $4,000.

Lose It, Don’t Move It

Another option that’s both effective and green, since it drastically reduces chemical usage, is spray and vacuum technology. A small cart-mounted system allows a cleaner to go into tight areas, such as the bathroom, and pressure spray a water-based cleaning solution onto the floor, then vacuum it up.

“When you clean with a mop and a bucket, you remove some of the dirt, but much of it is just moved around,” says Rathey. A mop bucket creates a soiling cycle, he explains, where the only time clean solution is applied is the first time the mop is dipped in the bucket.

Newer mopping systems help prevent this by providing discharge and soak areas where cleaners can rinse mops prior to re-dipping them in cleaner. Experts also recommend switching out chemicals and mop heads between projects to prevent cross-contamination.

Still, when mopping, cleaners might also experience dirty water pooling in the tile grout. With the vacuum system, any soil and organic material is removed along with the water. The unit can be used with water alone, or with a built-in injection system that sprays a pre-measured cleaning solution.

“It’s always better to remove the soil and microbes than to use a lot of chemicals to kill them,” says Rathey. “The less disinfectant you use, the less chemicals you’re dumping down the drain.”

Greig achieves similar results on floors using diamond-encrusted cleaning pads on his polishers. A typical pad contains billions of microscopic diamonds that scrape up surface dirt to produce a high gloss, non-slip finish.

“No particles are released up into the air,” he says, “and it requires no chemicals.” The pads are also said to eliminate the need for sealing the floor every three to four months.

Maintaining Indoor Air Quality

Even with the presence of toxic cleaning chemicals reduced, indoor air quality can suffer without proper cleaning techniques and subsequently affect the health of cleaners and building occupants.

“It’s important that we capture and remove contaminants from the air at the source, before they enter the breathing zone,” says Rathey. Vacuum filters and HEPA filters remove invisible particulates that carry bacteria and mold spores.

Something as simple as floor mats can also make a huge difference.

“We write into our specs that the building must have at least a 15-foot mat,” says Greig. “That’s five paces on a mat to clean your shoes. If you don’t use mats, the first carpet you run into will clean your shoes, whether it’s in the lobby, the elevator or your office.”

Air quality is a function of the air flow and air pressure systems, which aren’t housekeeping issues, but it behooves the cleaning manager to be able to communicate with building maintenance and engineering departments about air quality issues.

Rathey encourages continued education and understanding of maintenance terms and ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) standards.

“There needs to be more communication between housekeeping, maintenance and engineering,” says Rathey. “If we as housekeeping professionals can seek out a little education and understanding of ventilation issues, we’re much more likely to get a seat at the table when the health of the environment is being discussed.”

Rathey also sees the need for more professionalism and training among cleaning staff.

“We are the stewards of the indoor environment, and that’s not low-level work. It requires self-esteem and education.”

Understanding the ins and outs of the facility and the department’s cleaning mission will help assist custodial workers in their quest to clean for health.

Maureen Badding is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee, Wis.