A university professor complains a test is missing from the top of his desk and suggests a member of the custodial staff — mostly students themselves — stole it. Another custodial outfit finds itself facing stiff penalties for hiring a large illegal immigrant work force. A third operation at an elementary school finds itself immersed in scandal as police charge one of its custodians with raping two 10-year-old boys. And in another organization, tragedy strikes as a hospital housekeeper is attacked and murdered as she makes her way across a darkened and deserted parking lot after her shift. While only one of these stories is actually true, all are plausible, and the prudent custodial director is prepared for them.

Dee Littlejohn, director of custodial operations at Dallas Theological Seminary, a theological college located near downtown Dallas, knows full well the importance of safety preparation. The sprawling campus is just a few short miles from urban life, a positive when it comes to student access to the amenities a city offers, but a negative for the crime it can bring to the neighborhood. While the 20-acre campus is relatively safe, at times its students fall victim to minor thefts and car break-ins.

“We do have issues with crime,” Littlejohn admits. “The campus is kind of a haven in itself, but it’s surrounded by the city world.”

In the Midwestern community of Kenosha, Wis., Richard Wucherer, the director of housekeeping and environmental services for United Hospital System, struggles with similar issues. Children’s Hospital and a maternity ward in one of the system’s two hospitals, expensive medical equipment, and mandates to keep patient records confidential requires Wucherer to keep a watchful eye on security.

Martin Escalante, director of the Custodial Services Department at San Francisco United School District, shares their woes. Though he faces somewhat unique needs as he oversees custodial operations at the district’s approximately 150 sites, which include childcare centers and administrative buildings housing approximately 56,000 students, he too must manage safety and security as his staff maintains the facilities.

Although it isn’t always feasible to maintain safety outdoors, custodial managers can guarantee safety among the cleaning department. These experts say sustaining a successful, safe and secure custodial operation includes: background checks, uniforms and/or identification badges, access control and training.

“Uniforms, badges, training and proper background checks are critical aspects of any cleaning operation, even more so these days,” says Bill Griffin of Cleaning Consultant Services Inc., in Seattle.

Know Your Employee

There are many reasons to make background checks part of the hiring process. A government crackdown on businesses employing workers without valid Social Security numbers is just one, as organizations failing to comply with this requirement now face stiff penalties and other sanctions. Weeding out job candidates with checkered criminal pasts is another valid reason. If a custodial organization never hires questionable individuals it can greatly reduce its exposure to theft and other crimes.

The good news is that many custodial operations already perform background checks as part of the hiring process.

Since 90 percent of the 20 combined full-time, part-time and on-call employees in the custodial department at Dallas Theological Seminary are students, most custodians underwent background checks as part of the school’s admissions process. However, the institution recently mandated background checks for outside hires as well.

“We need to get a feel for them and know about their past,” Littlejohn explains.

Wucherer and Escalante say background checks are required by the state, as both Wisconsin and California mandate this scrutiny for health care and educational workers. The human resources department at these facilities conducts the examinations behind the scenes.

“Everyone gets a background check. Everyone also gets a drug and alcohol screening check before they are hired,” says Wucherer. “We’ve done that for many, many years.”

Dressing The Part

A soldier’s camouflaged fatigues, a police officer’s uniform, and a firefighter’s turnout gear all say something about the job they’re there to do. This attire commands authority and sends a message about the specific service these authorities are there to perform. Wearing a custodial uniform can accomplish the same thing.

Charlie “Mickey” Crowe, a custodial consultant with CLEEnTech Consulting Group of central Florida, strongly encourages custodial organizations to garb employees in uniforms.

“Any time you have uniforms, it’s a positive thing,” he stresses. “It identifies the custodian to building occupants. It makes them stand out.”

United Hospital System, a regional health care network consisting of two hospitals and two off-site clinics, has long embraced the uniform concept, furnishing every hospital employee with a uniform designating their department. Members of the environmental services team wear specific colors signifying the particular job they perform. Housekeeping wears burgundy-colored tops or smocks with dark pants, painters don painter white, while groundskeepers dress in decent slacks and a brown shirt.

The seminary’s custodial operation is responsible for cleaning interior facilities, including a 10-story residential building, and picking up exterior trash and recyclables. To ensure workers are presentable and readily identifiable, the department issues full-time employees five button-down shirts, five pairs of pants, a jacket and up to five pairs of shorts that identify them as “Facilities” workers. Part-timers receive several T-shirts to wear on the job. Because the school does not supply identification badges, monitoring the return of uniforms as employees leave becomes a critical duty.

“Employees must return all uniforms — even if it’s just T-shirts — when they leave, just the same as their keys,” Littlejohn says, for their uniform is what identifies them as members of the housekeeping staff.

In many operations, identification badges have become a logical extension of the uniform, and in some cases, the only identifier of the custodial staff. Escalante’s 276 custodians must wear their IDs throughout their entire shift. They do not have uniforms yet; the union just bargained to add them.

It is just good business to require employees to don ID badges at all times, adds Wucherer. Badges worn by United Hospital System custodians also serve as timecards and provide access to restricted areas. Staffers simply swipe in and out when they arrive and leave, and run the ID through card readers to enter a secure area.

“Badge readers prevent access to certain areas if the custodian is authorized to be there,” Wucherer says. “They allow security to track access by the date, time, who went in and when they left.”

Keep It Honest

Like the professor in the earlier scenario, when something goes missing from someone’s office or desk, many people first point fingers at the custodian, someone they often do not know well or at all. The smart custodial administrator does everything he/she can to reduce this perception by preventing it from occurring in the first place.

United Hospital System keeps such reasoning at bay by performing day cleaning in critical areas such as human resources, the finance department and information services. This measure reduces the likelihood of potential issues, such as reading confidential health care information. Housekeepers assigned to the finance and information services area perform project work on an as-scheduled basis with a security guard present as the job is performed.

“The workers are under constant scrutiny,” Wucherer says, “and it cuts down on a lot of problems.”

In addition, because United Hospital provides housekeepers with specific keys for the areas they’re assigned to clean, a security guard must let them into any area they do not have access to. When that occurs, data is entered into a security log as to who was let in and how long they were there. In addition to security oversight, custodial supervisors check in on workers periodically during their shifts.

That being said, Wucherer says the primary method of reducing theft perception remains fostering a climate of trust. “The housekeeper has to be thought of as a member of the team in the area they work,” he says. “People need to trust them like they do a nurse.”

The hospital network assigns each custodian to a specific area. This familiarizes occupants with the custodian and vice versa. Thorough staff training further builds trust.

“We instruct housekeepers not to touch people’s desks or anything personal,” Wucherer adds. “They are to clean around those areas unless they are told otherwise.”

At the theological college, Littlejohn takes things a step farther by educating custodians — as part of the operation’s 40-hour training program — on the steps to follow if they come across a misplaced item. Custodians are asked to sign documents that show they understand this procedure after completing training. In the training program, they learn that if the item is something small, such as a book or jacket, they are to leave it in the classroom until the following day. If it remains the next day, they should take it to the lost and found. However, if the item is something of value, such as a laptop, they are to contact their supervisor immediately, who in turn takes the item to campus police.

Littlejohn takes a hard line when any infraction, however small, is uncovered. For example, when it was found that a custodian used a computer in an office he was cleaning, the employee lost his job.

“We have a zero-tolerance policy for the use of someone’s office in that way and for theft of any kind,” she says. “They know that up front when we hire them.”

After Hours Safety

Most custodial departments are in full swing after the sun goes down and everyone has left the building. This too can create a safety issue.

Besides teaching employees to secure the area at the onset of their duties, the Dallas university issues a radio to every member of the custodial staff.

“This way, they can contact their supervisor or campus police immediately if they feel something is going on in one of the buildings,” Littlejohn says.

United Hospital System offers secure parking for employees, which allows the hospital to monitor everyone entering or leaving the facility and helps maintain the safety of employees departing in the wee hours of the night. Parking lots are equipped with emergency lights for people to activate if there’s a problem. These lights summon the security department to the scene.

“Eighty-five percent of the people who work in health care are female,” Wucherer says. “They need to know that there is security available.”

Theft, penalties and violent crimes can be prevented in the custodial operation by maintaining a safe and secure environment through background checks, uniforms, employee monitoring and training. Protecting employees and building occupants from harm keeps everyone focused on the job at hand.

Leigh Hunt is a freelance writer based near Milwaukee, Wis