Mold, tight building syndrome, Legionnaire’s Disease, chemical sensitivity, volatile organic compounds. An unprecedented increase in media coverage not only has the public worried, it also has many pointing an accusatory finger at what they feel is the source of their health problems — your building.

If you’re a facility professional — especially a housekeeping or environmental services specialist — what should you do to make your buildings less of a health threat? You are, after all, the logical first line of defense in the war against sick buildings.

Yet, before you take up the mantle as official or de facto defender of the public health, it’s important that you, your staff, and the executives you answer to are grounded in what you can and can’t realistically handle.

That kind of understanding comes from doing your homework regarding today’s threats, causes and remedial measures. Next, determine the context of those threats relative to the type of building mission you support.

Some housekeeping managers, based on the uniqueness of their facilities, will ostensibly be more sophisticated than others when it comes to analyzing and mitigating health problems. Other housekeeping professionals are more likely to depend on outtasked expertise.

In health care settings, for example, reducing nosocomial infections and meeting Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JACHO) requirements regarding sanitation will be a top priority. More common concerns found in almost every type of facility include detecting and controlling mold growth, reducing cross-contamination in public areas or addressing occupant sensitivity to today’s building materials and cleaning chemicals.

Staff training also plays a critical role. Workers have to understand the chemical makeup of the products they’re using, the limitations and, certainly, the proper application procedures.

At the very least, you and your staff, more and more, will be called upon to be spokespeople for the organization. Your job now entails putting a particular threat in it’s proper context and/or reassuring occupants that the building is indeed reasonably safe. And you’ll find top management coming to you for answers. Amidst all these requests, it’s ultimately up to you to determine what level of response can be expected from your department.

Chemical concerns
Many organizations have become concerned with reducing the level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in their buildings.

VOCs off-gas when certain ingredients, such as formaldehyde, methylene chloride, benzene and perchloroethylen are used. Exposure to these gasses can cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, nausea and dizziness, and skin problems. Prolonged amounts of exposure can cause irritation of the lungs and wheezing, according to health and environmental agencies. Some ingredients that cause these symptoms also can be known carcinogens.

Housekeeping managers can prevent negative reactions by purchasing chemicals with lower levels of VOC-causing ingredients or that do not have them at all.

Another related air quality/product emission issue involves individual sensitivity to certain types of chemical formulations or fragrances. This occurs more because of a personal immunity concern than because the actual substance is unhealthy. Yet, it still adds another category of questions for housekeeping decision makers to consider during product research.

Since it is virtually impossible to anticipate all of the health considerations occupants and workers present in a given facility, the best bet is to look for items that are least harmful in all the major categories previously mentioned, says Cynthia Coppin, head housekeeping supervisor at the Washington Square Hotel in New York. She frequently researches new products to make sure they are the safest for her cleaning staff to use.

Some housekeeping decision makers may not know where to look for low-VOC or green chemicals. The best bet is to contact industry associations and government agencies that track such information, says Patricia Griffin, president of the Green Hotels Association, a national organization that helps lodging professionals find environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional cleaning methods.

Another resource for product research is Green Seal, a non-profit environmental group that tests and rates cleaning products based on their level of VOCs and other environmental factors. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also can be a valuable resource in chemical due-diligence efforts. Many products must be registered with the agency and it makes a variety of chemical information available.

Housekeeping managers may not want to do all this research alone either, says Griffin. She has found the chemists and scientists at many manufacturing companies and distributorships helpful in determining specific ingredient levels in cleaning chemicals.

Once housekeeping managers feel they have found the safest and most useful chemicals for their facilities, they should keep a log of products available in case occupants have questions. Most times a quick look at a material safety data sheet (MSDS) can give enough information to explain to a customer what is in a common cleaning chemical, says Griffin.

And if an occupant takes issue with a product, housekeeping managers must determine a course of action that satisfies that person’s needs. Sometimes it involves swapping one product for another. Other times it may require warning that person when the chemical will be used, so he or she can plan accordingly.

Marty Shafer, operations director for housekeeping at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics system in Iowa City, recently encountered such a situation regarding pesticides used around his facilities. Once a month a patient calls into the facilities department to find out if the landscaping crew has placed any pesticides on the lawn. She is so sensitive to the chemicals that just walking past them on the way to her check-up could cause health problems.

Shafer wasn’t directly involved in landscaping, but made sure to find out quickly from the right source when the lawns were treated so that he could give the woman a proper answer.

He also has fielded such questions regarding ingredients in hand soaps from the nursing staff, requiring him to look into MSDS for an answer.
Quick-response remediation

Other public concerns, such as the threat of toxic mold outbreaks, fall into the category of project work and preventative maintenance. Remediation is something that often requires immediate action, followed by the need for a gameplan to reduce risks in the future.

“I didn’t know the word stachybotrys a year ago, and now aspergillus is a part of our daily language,” says Gordon Kauffman, custodial services manager for Hesston College, Hesston, Kan.

In the last few months, his department discovered an outbreak on campus that affected at least one professor’s health until the mold was removed. In addition, Kauffman also has had to work with college officials to determine the best way to avoid mold growth from contaminating a new renovation project in the school library, where a weak outer wall that has had moisture problems will become part of the interior.

Kauffman is hard at work researching mold remediation tactics and ways to prevent moisture problems from occurring. Much of what he has done so far has been ancillary work that ordinary cleaning procedures wouldn’t address. With that comes extra spending that currently isn’t in the budget.

“When we had the mold issue we had to come up with many thousands of dollars to take care of the issue immediately because it couldn’t wait, so we had to come up with the money,” says Kauffman. “But while we’re thinking in terms of preventative measures to avoid more problems, we haven’t padded our budget to account for more remediation that could crop up in the future. I guess the thinking is that we’ll fix the problem or absorb it somehow.”

Long-term planning
But the truth is, housekeeping budgets can’t always absorb large remediation projects without cutting elsewhere. And that could mean a reduction in general cleaning, which also protects public health.
Housekeeping departments that have had to face similar remediation projects must consider the fiscal ramifications of those last-minute emergencies on the rest of the budget. Similarly, what if there is another outbreak or emergency in other buildings down the road?

Another consideration is whether to handle the tasks in-house or find an outside expert. When it comes to mold testing, a facility should look to outside laboratories that are versed in the best ways to analyze specimens. Other times a remediation expert might be necessary to explain the proper removal procedures or to do the actual work.

When it is advisable for a cleaning staff to have their own in-house “expert” available to address issues, proper training is necessary, says Jeff Bishop, chairman of the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC), which offers training and certification in a variety of cleaning tasks and specialties.

First, he says managers must commit to hosting regular training sessions to make sure they and staff members are up to speed.

Next, Bishop recommends sending individual supervisors to highly specialized training. This way when a public health issue, such as sanitizing restrooms or abating mold arises, there is an in-house “expert” able to quickly address concerns and determine the best cleaning procedures to use. The one-time cost of training a staff member is much more viable than having to spend much more on a consultant each time a problem surfaces, says Bishop.

Lastly, these trained supervisors need to hold on-going, on-the-job training for the rest of the housekeeping staff. Comprehensive new-hire training combined with weekly training supplements can keep housekeeping workers on their toes and looking out for the public’s best interest, says Bishop.

Keeping the public at ease
Safeguarding building occupant health has a public relations implication, as well.

In Kauffman’s case, a consultant was called in to help handle the remediation effort and explain how to handle communication with building occupants or the local press. But Kauffman also realizes that as a member of the university he too must think twice about how he presents information to the public.

Housekeeping managers need to determine what they are comfortable discussing with building occupants or local media, leaving the rest for their organization’s public relations staff to handle.

Legally, managers could be at risk if they admit wrongdoing or misrepresent the facts. That is why they may at least want to confer with communications staff prior to releasing explanations to the public, if an outbreak occurs. Backing up claims with industry documentation also can help a housekeeping manager when addressing the public, says Bishop. He suggests looking into studies the IICRC and the Building Service Contractor’s Association International have done on “healthy housekeeping techniques” and their ability to create a better indoor environment for occupants.

Chris O’Malley, director of environmental services for South Shore Hospital in Chicago hasn’t had any major incidents at his facility, but he still prefers passing information along to the public relations department rather than getting too involved in public interaction. That’s because he says the PR staff has a strong relationship with community leaders and members of the local neighborhood.

A helping hand
The housekeeping staff rarely should have to address public health concerns alone. Often, other departments within a facility have just as much of a role in solving problems or educating occupants.

Housekeeping staff members need to work with landscaping and exterior maintenance personnel to make sure that what is being done outside the building isn’t tracked into the building, he says. Then, maintenance personnel must be involved in discussions about how plumbing, ventilation and other areas affect cleaning.

Sometimes the people housekeeping must work with are not facility-related, adds Tom Svendsen, an industry consultant with Servicys distribution, based in Illinois. He has been involved with hospital infection-control campaigns to help nursing and other health care staff members understand the importance of keeping a clean environment to reduce infection rates.

For an entire week, Svendsen, the infection control officer and the hazardous-materials manager taught classes at one hospital regarding proper disposal of sharps and other biohazardous materials, proper hand washing and proper instrument sterilization. His background in cleaning and the science it involves helped to explain why the proper procedures were necessary to remove bacteria and viruses.

“Housekeeping can only do so much,” he says. “Often times they need to enlist the support of the very people questioning them, in order to maintain the most healthy environment possible.”

Educational Facility Tip
• Giving Sanitation a Helping Hand

Many health care environments have begun using waterless hand sanitizers for staff who aren’t able to get to a sink to wash their hands. In fact the U.S. Centers for Disease Control mandate that health care institutions have an alterative way to clean hands.

Schools too may want to consider placing a dispenser in each classroom where teachers can sanitize their hands after working with sick children. Students also could use the sanitizer after sneezing and coughing without interrupting class or having to leave the room. This precaution can cut down on absenteeism.

Training Tip
• Making a Solid Impression

Many managers say they have a hard time convincing cleaning workers to allow enough “dwell” time for chemicals to disinfect or sanitize as needed. Tom Svendsen, an industry consultant with a strong background in health care, suggests using live demonstrations.

When Svendsen comes across an environmental services staff that isn’t understanding the need for dwell time, he does a culture on a surface. Then he wipes that surface with a disinfectant and lets it dry. Next, he does a culture test in time increments such as five, 10 and 30 minutes, to show what dwell time is necessary to properly reduce bacteria.

He says most good disinfectants only should take about five minutes to do the job.

The Benefit of Bad Press
Harnessing media coverage to help housekeeping

As the mainstream media continues to spin off stories regarding the dangers of the built environment, some housekeeping managers may feel enough is enough. However, Tom Svendsen, a housekeeping consultant with Servicys, a distribution company, Bannockburn, Ill., argues that in-depth investigations or even sensationalized press can work in housekeepers’ favor.

Case in point:, The Chicago Tribune recently ran a three-part series discussing newly discovered cross-contamination death statistics in U.S. hospitals. The article’s author, Michael Berens, says a common thread found in his investigation into thousands of federal and state inspection reports was that hospital cleaning and janitorial staff are overwhelmed and inadequately trained, resulting in unsanitary rooms or wards where germs have proliferated. He also reported that "while cost-cutting measures in U.S. hospitals have collectively pared down cleaning staffs by 25 percent since 1995," half of all U.S. hospitals were cited for failing to properly sanitize portions of their facilities during that time.

Svendsen says these points and others made in the series make the public more aware of a problem that housekeeping decision makers have struggled with for years — having to do more with less because administrators believe cleaning is an expendable part of their budgets.

"I think the media has a responsibility to inform the community and also to excite them," he says. "By getting people excited about the potential for cross-contamination they’re going to act, forcing people to improve health care conditions, hire more knowledgeable people and pay more to educate and equip staff."

Hospitality Tip
• Sensitive Customers

Since chemical sensitivity is a growing concern in the hotel and lodging industry, Patricia Griffin, president of the Green Hotels Association, suggests housekeeping managers consider making one to two rooms permanently chemical free, cleaning with natural products and handling linens in a non-bleach wash to reduce visitor exposure.

She also suggests looking into peroxide-based formulas for cleaning because they use a safer oxidizing action to remove dirt and bacteria than harsh chemicals with bleach contents or acids that can irritate skin and respiratory systems.

Another way to reduce the use of harsh chemicals is to switch to off-white linens that won’t need to be whitened to maintain appearance.