Green cleaning” is housekeeping’s trend du jour. It is a noble cause, to be sure, but many industry leaders worry that facility professionals may not be on the same page when it comes to the definition of “green.”

Depending on whom you ask, a facility may qualify for the so-called green designation if it simply incorporates sustainable building products and is environmentally friendly relative to the geographic area it shares.

All too often, the impact of environmentally friendly building products on the health of building occupants is not factored into the equation. Dr. Michael Berry, in his book, “Cleaning for Health,” contents that a truly healthy cleaning program encompasses more than using biodegradable products that come in recycled packaging. A truly healthy cleaning program, Berry argues, is one that is concerned with indoor air quality, ergonomics, cleaning product storage and disposal, cross-contamination, safety, and much more.

“If it’s not safe for the operator, it’s not a green building,” says Dave Frank, president of Knowledge Worx consulting agency in Highlands Ranch, Colo. By that criterium, the experts agree, most buildings are not “green,” — regardless of whether or not they use environmentally friendly products.

“Ninety percent of the focus has been on selling a product,” says John Walker, a consultant with Managemen Inc. “Almost none of the emphasis has been on using products properly, in the proper time, and by a properly trained person. Cleaning for health has to be focused on the total result. Right now, at the worker level, there’s not a lot of cleaning for health going on in the United States.”

Mind shift
The first step to creating a healthy building is to step back and look at the complete picture:

  • Building Design — Although the housekeeping department has little say in how a building is designed, they should nonetheless make their feelings known. For example, if the carpet needs replacement, housekeeping may want to suggest an easier-to-clean floor surface. If a floor surface is easier to clean it will be more sanitary and will hold less dust and dirt.

  • Products and Procedures — “If you ever look in a janitor’s closet, it looks like Pandora’s box,” says Walker. “There are things in there that could kill people.”

    Be sure the products in the supply closet aren’t just “green” but also ergonomically correct, safe for the user, stored properly and clearly labeled. Use only the safest technologies available. Invest in microfibers, high-filtration vacuums; flat mops; color-coded tools; and dual bucket mopping systems, for example.

  • Goals — Is housekeeping’s goal to make the place look good or to actually make it clean? Make sure everyone on staff knows the answer.

    “If I just focus on making a place look pretty, it doesn’t have to be clean,” says Mark Samios, Portion Pac’s national education director. “That’s called eyewash. To just make it look good, you can use anything you want. But we don’t use chlorinate solvents and benzene because we recognize those chemicals are bad for people’s health and they don’t go away in the environment.”

  • Employee Focused — The most important concept in cleaning for health involves a simple shift in thought process. The entire focus should not be exclusively on the building or its occupants, but also on the cleaning workers.

    “The cleaning worker is exposed to everything, whether it is bad cleaning chemicals or dust from vacuuming,” says Larry Shideler, CEO of Pro-Team, Inc., which manufactures backpack vacuums. Shideler, a former contract cleaning executive, continues, “They’re working in it eight hours a day while, the occupants don’t come in until the next day when the dust has settled and the fumes are gone.”

  • Training — Instituting a healthy cleaning program is commendable, but it simply won’t work if the cleaning employees are not properly trained.

“For a while it was thought that you could hire anyone to clean — here are the keys to the area, go clean it,” says Marvin Klein, president of PortionPac, Chicago. “Today there is an increased emphasis on good education for custodial workers,” he says.

Slow to respond
Despite a growing interest in worker training, the United States is still behind the proverbial eight ball when it comes to cleaning for health.

“The Europeans are about five to 10 years ahead of Americans in terms of cleaning technologies,” says Bruno Niklaus, vice president of global marketing for Unger Enterprises. Unger sells about half of its cleaning products outside the United States.

“Europe has been flat mopping for 10 years and Americans are still string mopping. [Europeans] have been doing color coding for eight years. Americans do it in food service but not much in jan/san.”

The reason for the disparity? Niklaus believes it has to do with how the cleaning profession and its workers are viewed by society.

“The profession is not viewed as a profession. It’s viewed as a day-to-day job in America,” says Niklaus. “When cleaners clean offices in Europe, the people who work there shake their hands and thank them. They are viewed as a professional and not just a worker. You have schools, organizations and better support from the government.”

Samios agrees. He says because Americans don’t value cleaning workers they are unwilling to spend money on cleaning. People should stop asking how much they are willing to spend on the housekeeping department and start asking how much they are willing to protect their own health.

“I would like the people who go into a public building to look at the janitor and recognize that he or she is what’s standing between them and ill health,” says Samios. “The doctor might get you better after you’re sick but the janitor is keeping you healthy.”

Dollars and cents
Orchestrating a paradigm shift is a tall order and definitely not something any one housekeeping department can do on its own. So what can housekeeping operations do? Become better educated themselves and indoctrinate other facility team members who hold the purse strings regarding the importance of cleaning for health.

In the end, however, it always seems to boil down to a price tag.

“Unless they can see the economic value of it, they just don’t think about it,” says Shideler. “In this country you have to put a dollar on it for it to mean much.”

And, unfortunately — in this current economy — housekeeping budgets also are being slashed.

“There is no way to maintain a healthy environment when so many cleaning activity hours are being cut — it doesn’t matter what products or procedures you use,” says Frank. “Managers are being put in a position to make choices. The only room in the house that is nonnegotiable is the restroom and every thing else is up for grabs.”

Explain to financial decisionmakers that if dollars are not dedicated to the housekeeping department, it cannot execute a health-oriented cleaning strategy. Also, help the powers that be appreciate that cleaning for health does not cost more money and, in fact, may cost less over the life cycle of the facility.

There are easy-to-see benefits, such as reduced workload. Plainly put, “Less dust equals less dusting,” says Frank.

Harder to sell are the intangible benefits of cleaning for health.

“If you are cleaning healthy, you have less sickness for your workers and the building occupants have less sickness, too,” says Shideler.

“As a building owner I’d be more concerned that I didn’t have particulate floating around in the air than if there is a paper on the floor. The paper isn’t going to hurt me.”

Unfortunately, there have been very few documented studies that establish a connection between healthy cleaning and reduced sickness — and, ultimately an improved bottom line. If a housekeeping department can, for example, show a link between healthy cleaning and a reduction in absenteeism, then it can validate the need for funding certain products and procedures.

“The economic impact of one cold that spreads around a community is enormous. No one is putting a figure on what an economic impact a cold is,” says Klein. “I think in the years to come, there will be much more work done in this area. It’s just in its infancy.”

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