Cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting surfaces are daily tasks for custodial workers — but how likely is it that front-line workers know the uses for each chemical and understand the differences between them?

Product manufacturers and jan/san distributors agree that knowing the difference between cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting as applied to chemicals can be confusing. For that reason, custodial managers are encouraged to offer refresher training regularly.

Clean To Remove Soil

“Cleaning” as a noun encompasses all sorts of tasks; in fact, it is used to describe the entire industry, as well as the chores most Americans perform in their homes. But by examining the true meaning of the word as it applies to the chemical science of soil and germ removal, it becomes clear how important cleaning is to public health.

One chemical manufacturer in Illinois commented that, cleaning chemicals are designed to remove soil. Any impact they have on the population of microorganisms is generally the result of the removal of that soil. The bottom line function to using cleaners is to remove visible debris, dirt and dust from a surface — an essential first step in any cleaning program.

Of course, there are different types of cleaners for different types of soil. Some cleaners — those of which are on the alkaline end of the pH scale — remove greases and oils. Then there are acid-based cleaners, which are used to remove water scales and minerals. Between those two extremes are neutral cleaners used for lighter soils.

From degreasers and descalers to all-purpose and glass cleaners, these chemicals are commonly used on surfaces such as counters, desks, tables, walls and floors. Thorough cleaning, spray bottles and laundered or disposable towels or mops and diluted cleaning solutions in buckets, may be the only step in a cleaning application — or it may be just the first step.

Managers should stress to their staff that cleaning is an essential step in the removal of substances from surfaces. Only after cleaning chemicals have been used — and only in certain applications — sanitizing and disinfecting should follow.

Sanitizing and disinfecting are recommended for surfaces that are touched frequently by hands or skin or that come into contact with bacteria, urine, fecal matter or bloodborne pathogens. Common applications for sanitizers and disinfectants include food service, healthcare, educational, fitness and other public facilities such as airports and shopping malls. Specifically, these chemicals are typically used in restrooms, kitchen/break rooms and on touch points.

LISA RIDGELY is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee, Wis.

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