woman using a backpack vacuum and extension wands to reach elevated surfaces for vacuuming
photo courtesy of ProTeam

Every type of facility will have dust lurking in high places. That hidden and often difficult-to-reach dust can have a negative impact on the building’s indoor air quality, which has implications for the health of the building, the cleaning team and the building occupants.

It’s been well established that regular vacuuming with HEPA filters is one of the most essential components of a healthy indoor environment. Departments could have the most aggressive floor and carpet vacuuming program in the nation, but if dust is left hidden in high-up spaces like the rafters, the indoor air quality will suffer.

To help reach those pesky, hidden high spots, vacuum manufacturers offer a list of specialized attachments, like extension wands and paddle tools. A few manufacturers have also introduced new equipment that is specifically designed for these hard-to-reach areas.

Richard J. Shaughnessy, Ph.D., program director of Indoor Air Research at the University of Tulsa, in Oklahoma, says it’s not just about the dust that’s hiding in those high spaces. “Any time you have any particulate matter that accumulates on flooring, people are going to walk on that and it will re-suspend back into the air.”

Where does all that dust go? Up.

“The re-suspended dust gets picked up by air currents and ventilation, and often it settles up high on bookshelves, light ballasts and things closer to the ceiling,” says Shaughnessy.

Facility And Frequency

According to Allen Rathey, director at the Indoor Wellness Council, advocators for healthier indoor environments through cleaning practice, it’s important to account for the dust you don’t see when you’re planning your vacuuming frequencies.

“Out of sight, out of mind should not apply to indoor air quality,” he says. “Simply because something is not visible to the casual observer does not mean it’s not a source of dust.”

Every type of facility will have a place that harbors dust up high. Jeff Merrihew, director of IT training at Janitronics, in Albany, New York, trains his team to use attachments daily for upholstery, as well as ceiling vents. Not only are these tricky areas often quite high up in a building, but they are also key players in the dust resuspension process. Merrihew’s team vacuums ceiling vents monthly.

In K-12 schools, dust settles most commonly in gymnasiums where there are open rafters and beams. Unlike in industrial settings, where the use of aerial lifts ensures access to piping, in a school setting, Merrihew’s team works from the ground. In these cases, the use of extension rods is common practice.

“We do as much as we can in schools from the ground using a collection of extension rods,” he says. “We want to minimize the use of lifts and ladders.”

In the university setting, especially in modern buildings with high-end architecture, there may often be sculptures or light fixtures suspended from vaulted ceilings that need to be vacuumed regularly using attachments and specialized equipment. For the cleaning team at The University of Washington, Seattle, investment in new vacuum tools designed to specifically target high spaces will help keep staff on the ground, while improving indoor air quality in a ten-year-old building that has more than 50 different light fixtures in its vaulted ceilings.

According to Gene Woodard, director of building services, “These tools seem to be versatile enough to be able to give you access to many different types of fixtures and delicate spaces from the floor, without the use of a ladder.”

Janitronics performs cleaning in manufacturing environments, where they will use specialized attachments fitted with a curved brush to hit the tops of pipes and vents. Manufacturing environments have built-in protocol for controlling contamination, so the usage is scheduled to correspond with the varied environments. As is often the case when vacuuming high areas, Merrihew’s team schedules this vacuuming during shutdown times. It is usually done quarterly.

“We’ve utilized the pipe cleaning attachments in everything from microchip to yogurt factories,” says Merrihew. “Wherever there’s a chance that dust accumulating on rafters or piping can fall onto surfaces below, the environment has to be protected.”

Like manufacturing environments, healthcare facilities can be compromised when dust is present in unseen spaces. Shari Solomon, president and founder of CleanHealth Environmental, emphasizes the importance of dust removal in all infection control programs.

“While dust may appear innocuous, in a healthcare facility, it could have significant health impacts,” says Solomon. “Dusty surfaces have been shown to be a cause of hospital acquired infections. Those with a weakened immune system have a higher likelihood for acquiring an infection, making healthcare facilities even more sensitive and at risk.”

Environmental services technicians responsible for the cleaning and disinfection of healthcare facilities are typically working with shrinking budgets, and have, on average, 12 to 15 minutes to clean an occupied room. Solomon recommends daily dusting for easy-to-reach places, and high dusting and vacuuming on room discharge — due to time constraints and the concern of dust falling on patients.

Whether departments need to follow strict contamination protocol or choose to target hard-to-reach areas as part of an indoor air quality program, frequency is imperative. Certain vacuum attachments have a place in daily usage, and those that target specific hard-to-reach areas should be used, if not daily, then regularly and frequently. How those areas are targeted, at which times and how frequently depends on the type of environment. It doesn’t have to be every day for every area, but the key will always be to avoid collecting dust.

The use of attachments to target higher areas should be a regular part of the cleaning program to reduce buildup.

“As far as air quality is concerned, if you’re stirring up a buildup of dust particles with vacuuming, you have an indoor air quality issue,” says Rathey. “Unless you’ve always done this type of cleaning routinely, you will be re-suspending dust.”

But once departments change cleaning practices to include regularly vacuuming hard-to-reach areas where dust tends to settle, then that process gets easier.

“You are gradually improving the cleanliness of the air,” says Rathey. “At first, it’s labor intensive, but you’ll reduce the frequency of dusting, both up high and down low...and people will stop using their nose and lungs as filters in the room.”

If workers are targeting an area that has an accumulation of dust and has not been regularly vacuumed with attachments, Rathey offers some advice. These five steps can help managers take to control of dust and improve indoor air quality:
1. Start by purchasing vacuums that have excellent filtration.
2. Train staff to make sure filters are clean before each use.
3. Staff should vacuum elevated/detail surfaces with attachments to remove all the buildup.
4. Maintain cleanliness with a specific cleaning schedule, steps one through three.
5. Instruct staff to vacuum floors normally going forward, with step four interspersed.

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Using Proper Vacuuming Equipment Promotes Health And Safety