Disease-causing bacteria, fungi and viruses can hide anywhere in buildings, from toilet seats to doorknobs. But these pathogenic microorganisms are not content staying in one place for long.

They can catch a ride on food, hands, equipment and other surfaces. The spread of bacteria from one area to another, or “cross-contamination,” is most often associated with the food-service industry, but can occur anywhere.

Similarly, there are a growing number of products on the market that are specifically designed to limit the spread of germs or effectively eliminate them from the surfaces people tend to come in contact with. Touch-free dispensers allow users to touch only the soap or towel they wish to use. Touch-free toilets and faucets also eliminate the possibility of making contact with potentially harmful microorganisms.

Also growing in popularity is color-coded equipment, including mops and cloths. Custodians at Lynchburg City Schools in Virginia use a specific mop for every task: green is for general cleaning, blue is for restrooms, white is for blood, and pink is for stripper. The color-coded system prevents a mop that is used to clean a dirty toilet or a hazardous spill from later being used in a cafeteria or classroom.

San Diego State University switched to color-coded mops in 1991. Before the change, the cleaning crew used the same mops for every task “so there was no way to tell, other than perhaps by smell, where a mop had been used,” says Johnny Eaddy, assistant director of physical plant, business and financial affairs.

Another product that is changing the way people clean is microfiber, a dense nylon material that can hold six times its weight in water — making it far more absorbent than cotton. The positively charged fibers attract dust and can penetrate the microscopic surface pores of most floor materials and other surfaces.

The material is used in flat mops or cleaning cloths and can be reused after laundering. The microfiber mop is beginning to replace the conventional loop mop as the standard for hard-floor maintenance.

Home Hospital in Lafayette, Ind., switched to microfiber about two years ago. Previously, housekeepers used string mops to clean several rooms and then washed the mop before cleaning more rooms. Now, once a microfiber mop head has cleaned just one of the 400 patient rooms, it is replaced with a new microfiber mop head. Dirty mop heads are collected and laundered.

“The flat [microfiber] mops do a better job of cleaning from an infection-control point of view and just for the quality of cleaning,” says Jim Wharam, director of environmental services at Home Hospital.

University Medical Center in Tucson, Ariz., also uses microfiber. The center uses a rental service, which launders the mops and cleaning cloths. Each patient room has its own mop and the crews are trained to never use the same cleaning cloth in more than one room.

“We spend a significant amount of money each month on cleaning cloths,” says Connie Silverstein, director of support services at the medical center.

“It’s an investment in the environment and making sure we provide the proper cleaning procedures.”

Make the most of products
Products perform best when they are used properly. When upgrading to any new equipment, be sure to train staff on how to use new products in order to get the best results.

Educating the staff is important; you cannot hold employees to a standard if they don’t know what it is or how to achieve it.

“I think that the key is monitoring your staff and getting them started right with training,” Silverstein says. Her staff has frequent formal training sessions on the topic. “Make sure they understand the potential of cross-contamination. They may not think it’s a big deal.”

Custodians at Lynchburg City Schools learn about cross-contamination during orientation training and then again at twice-a-year refresher sessions. Ralph Hayes, supervisor for environmental services at the school district, also gives employees frequent reminder memos and pamphlets on the topic.

“The biggest thing is to keep the staff abreast of these items,” Hayes says. “Keep them aware of it. They are the ones using the chemicals and doing the cleaning.”

Cleaning staffs must learn that their job is more than keeping dust out of the corners. In today’s world, housekeeping departments have become health-keeping departments.

Checklist for Policing Pathogens

Frequent cleaning using careful processes and well-performing products is essential to preventing cross-contamination. Nino Fleri, chief of tenant services for World Bank, Washington, D.C., keeps the following “rules” in mind:

  • Reinforce the importance of clean hands for both staff and building occupants by posting friendly reminders about proper hand washing. Tell staff to avoid touching their faces, skin, or hair with cleaning cloths.

  • Allow for sufficient cleaning chemical dwell time. Be sure disinfectants and sanitizers are allowed to stay on a surface long enough (read manufacturers’ instructions). Educate cleaning crews about the necessary contact time for each chemical.

  • Always use the right tool. Cleaning multiple areas with the same supplies will quickly spread pathogenic microorganisms. For example, use a toilet mop for the interior of the toilet and a microfiber cloth for the exterior.

  • Trap pollutants before they enter the building by keeping entryways clean and by using walk-off mats. Also, always remember to clean door handles and other fixtures.

  • Keep janitorial closets organized and clean so pathogens don’t attach themselves to cleaning equipment and spread throughout the building. Also, segregate tools so items used to clean a restroom are not side-by-side with those used in a kitchen, for example.

Becky Mollenkamp is a free-lance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa.