Safety should be a priority for every business, but particularly for cleaning operations whose mistakes can be serious and costly. The best (and only) way to make sure janitors are safe is to train them to be that way.

Without adequate training, problems are inevitable — something Steve Spencer, facility specialist for State Farm Insurance in Bloomington, Ill., has seen firsthand. When he was in the health care field, an employee put an acid cleaner into a toilet bowl, swabbed the bowl, then wiped the seat with the same rag. A building occupant later sat on the seat and was burned. Spencer is convinced that a good training program would have prevented the burn accident.

“If the cleaner had been trained properly, he would have known the types of injuries the chemicals can cause,” he says.

Need proof that training equals safety? After the University of Notre Dame’s Building Services division implemented an in-depth training program five years ago, injuries decreased by nearly 75 percent and associated costs decreased by nearly 80 percent.

“There is no doubt that a well-trained staff translates into a safe operating staff,” says Alan S. Bigger, Notre Dame Universities director of building services, Notre Dame, Ind., and president of the Association of Higher Education Facilities’ Officers (APPA). “It is imperative to have a meaningful training program.”

Education not only improves safety, but also allows workers to deliver higher-quality work. Another added bonus of training, according to Spencer, is lower employee turnover.

“If they are well-trained, they feel in control of their job,” he says. “If they are guessing they will get yelled at for doing something wrong, then feel frustrated when problems arise and they’ll quit.”

Be The Judge
Thanks to requirements set by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), every cleaning department must train on such issues as hazard communication, personal protective equipment (PPE) and bloodborne pathogens. But because OSHA only imposes minimum standards, many organizations lack a comprehensive program.

It is up to the cleaning manager to make an honest assessment of their training program. A track record of injuries or OSHA violations is one indicator that change is needed. However, an absence of such issues is not a free pass.

“There’s not necessarily a correlation there. You may have zero injuries but you could still have problems,” says Curtis Chambers, CSP, vice president of OSHA Pro’s Inc., training and compliance experts in Arlington, Texas.

Because candid self-evaluation is difficult, if not impossible, a third-party assessment is the better bet. If hiring a consultant is too expensive, consider asking your insurance company to perform an appraisal of your OSHA programs, including training and documentation.

It is also important to solicit staff and occupant input during the evaluation process. Interview employees to learn what they think works and what needs improvement. Send a satisfaction survey to building occupants and remain open minded to their suggestions.

Even if you are confident that your program is up to snuff, force yourself to examine it on a set schedule. Every year, review your procedures and ask if there are better ways of doing things. And then test your training by conducting on-the-spot quizzes of staff.

“If a person is properly trained, he can spit out what to do in the case of a blood spill. If not, there’s something wrong with your training,” Spencer says. “If you are interested in it, they will know it’s priority.”

The Essentials
There are three critical areas that most housekeeping safety programs should cover, according to OSHA.

The Hazard Communication Standard requires employers to inform employees of the risks posed by chemicals using labels and material safety data sheets (MSDS). The Personal Protective Equipment Standard obligates employers to provide employees any needed gear to prevent injury (and requires that employees use it).

The Bloodborne Pathogen Standard imposes communication, training and recordkeeping requirements on employers of workers who may be exposed to blood or other infectious materials.

Training for all three areas can be covered in one program and OSHA requires only that the training be done once (except the bloodborne pathogen standard, which requires annual training). Paperwork documenting the program is one of the most critical aspects of OSHA compliance.

Although the OSHA standards are important, they are not enough. A good training program should go well beyond those minimums, Chambers says.

“Technically you can cover hazard communication just once, but I recommend an annual program,” he says. “Companies that stay on top of their training tend to do annual refreshers on all of the standards.”

It is also important to hold training sessions whenever a new chemical or piece of equipment is introduced.

“Follow-up is also critical,” Spencer says. “If you train someone and you put them out in the field but don’t follow up on a regular basis, bad habits might develop that can become a safety problem.”

Ongoing Education
Follow up is where most safety training programs fall short. Initial training should include everything from how to empty a heavy wastebasket to how to read an MSDS. Simply telling an employee once how to mix chemicals or prevent a back injury isn’t enough. Repeating the message again and again is the only way to be sure it isn’t forgotten or mutated.

“A lot of people just assume people know these common things but that’s not always the case,” Chambers says. “They may know 90 percent, but the 10 percent they didn’t know is the value of training.”

Ongoing training also keeps everyone sharp, which means someone who hasn’t cleaned floors in five years can do it if needed.

“The killer for a training program is to think of it as a one-time event,” Bigger says. “Training is an on-going process that continues over time.”

In addition to being ongoing, training must be comprehensive and entertaining. Too often, safety training is nothing more than a video or a manual. A quality program includes interactive and site-specific information. Don’t just discuss the importance of safety goggles; show where they are kept and how they are used.

If possible, set aside space in your facility to use as a training laboratory. If space is at a premium, do hands-on training after hours.

“They need to be able to make mistakes without putting someone at risk,” Spencer says. “They need an area to practice where they can gain confidence before you put them out on the floor.”

Without providing these experiences, you may be leaving training to chance. On-the-job training can lead to big problems. Veteran employees, who may unwittingly be making mistakes, can pass their flaws on to new employees.

“That’s why you need a formalized training program and treat it like any other profession would,” Spencer says. “Arm your employees with the information they need to go out and do a good job.”

To prevent employees from zoning out during training sessions, keep things interesting with computer programs or behavior-based training. The latter has employees choose the top safety issues and then allows peers to observe each other and then provide reminders and encouragement.

“Getting your employees involved is key,” says Sue Weister, assistant manager of housekeeping for Marshfield Clinic in Marshfield, Wis. “Maybe the manger could act out a fake accident and the employees could figure how to prevent it or point out what the manger did wrong. Try to make it fun and interesting.”

Vendor Support
Don’t let your training fall short because of a lack of creativity or resources. Help is available from a myriad of sources. The Internet offers a wealth of information about OSHA requirements, as well as ideas for training methods.

Another valuable resource is your roster of vendors. Ask your distributors if they have training videos and literature to accompany their products. Many will go a step farther, offering on-site training.

“Distributors in our area are always having free or inexpensive seminars to train on new methods, products or equipment,” says Dan Banducci, facilities manager for Lane County Government in Eugene, Ore.

State Farm’s Spencer actually puts training into his contracts with distributors. Anytime he purchases a new piece of equipment, he requires the distributor to come in and show the staff how to use and maintain it. And many times the distributor will return periodically for refresher courses.

“They all have training available and you should take advantage of it,” Spencer says. “I wouldn’t buy chemicals from someone just to get their training, but if you are buying from them anyway, you should take advantage of their knowledge base.”

Safety Police
Once you have a great training program in place, the final step is enforcing it. After all, training employees is pointless if they don’t follow the rules.

“You can’t treat it any different than quality or attendance,” Chambers says. “The difference between good safety programs and the not so good ones is enforcement.”

A good safety program should provide training as well as follow-up to see how the training has been translated into work behaviors. A comprehensive program will track employee performance on safety issues, based on supervisor and customer feedback. This system will help management clarify areas that need to be improved.

For example, if you discover that employees are regularly taking unsafe shortcuts, they may need retraining that explains both how and why something is done a particular way. Once they understand the reason behind a procedure, they may be less likely to skip steps.

“Any safety program becomes weak when management stops paying attention,” Weister says. “Programs that are not practiced daily or programs that employees are not familiar with tend to be weak. Managers need to stress that safety is first.”

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa.

OSHA Consultation
To be sure your programs meet OSHA regulations, visit to read the requirements established by each standard. OSHA has created a free consultation service that allows smaller businesses to find out about potential hazards at their worksites without fear of receiving citations or penalties. To find consultants in your state, search “Consultation Directory” at