Cleaning professionals clean all types of facilities from airports to hospitals to schools, so when the threat of a pandemic occurs — such as what happened in late April when a strain of flu that emerged in Mexico had a rapid geographic spread throughout the United States and the world — they're working overtime to make sure customers and employees are getting the information they need.

Millions of human cases of swine flu, or H1N1 flu, have now been identified in the U.S. H1N1 is an influenza type A virus, the same as common flu bugs. This particular strain, however, worries health officials because it is sickening healthy young and middle-aged adults and it is contagious before hosts are showing symptoms. While cleaning professionals' plans of attack are essentially the same as they would be for any flu outbreak or pandemic, because the illness has a name unfamiliar to many, their role as educators has taken center stage.

Distributors can help educate in-house service providers and building service contractors on the best products and practices to use in combating H1N1. During any health scare, communication is one of the most vital pieces of the business puzzle, and manufacturers and distributors are providing much needed information to clients that they can use to educate their own employees and customers.

Jan/San’s Role
Preventing pandemic influenza requires the same techniques as those used to prevent seasonal influenza, according to reports by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). According to many industry manufacturers, preventing infection includes disinfecting commonly touched surfaces, preventing cross-contamination and promoting proper hand washing. However, this type of cleaning program would mean distributors will have a bigger role in informing customers on the differences between “clean” and “disinfected.”

“Our industry cleans at a sanitary level or less,” says Dave Frank, president, American Institute for Cleaning Sciences, Highlands Ranch, Colo. “Cleaning for emergency preparedness would move it up a level to disinfecting.”

In his book “Protecting the Built Environment,” Dr. Michael Berry explains that sanitary is cleaning to the point of protecting health in general, but surfaces will still have some contamination. In order for environments to be disinfected, 95 percent of harmful substances must be removed.

Wiping contaminated surfaces with a disinfectant effective against Type A influenza viruses should kill the H1N1 virus, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

There are several aspects of the disinfecting process that distributors can review with end users. Janitors applying disinfectant need to pay close attention to the instructions and allow the product enough dwell time in order to kill the virus.

Flu viruses can live on hard surfaces for up to 8 hours, so janitors should focus on surfaces that are frequently touched by hands such as doorknobs, countertops, desks and elevator buttons and panels.

Utilizing proper cross-contamination techniques will also help prevent further spread of the virus. Mop heads should be changed after cleaning each room, vacuum bags should be replaced each day and tools should be color-coded for use in specific areas such as restrooms and kitchen areas, recommends Frank.

The best way to kill flu viruses on one’s person is by cleaning hands several times a day for at least 20 seconds with either soap or hand sanitizers. It will be up to building occupants to ensure their hands are washed often and long enough, but cleaning crews can still encourage proper techniques. Signs posted in restrooms and kitchens serve as good reminders, says Brian Sansoni, vice president of communication and membership, Soap and Detergent Association (SDA), Washington D.C.

Distributors should also encourage end users to supply hand sanitizing stations in hallways or cafeterias — places where it would be a little too much trouble for building occupants to go to the restroom to wash hands.

Installing the latest restroom technology such as touch-free dispensers and foaming soaps can encourage hand washing, as well, says Sansoni.

Protecting tenants from a pandemic flu is a major responsibility for cleaning crews, but they must also take precautions to protect themselves from infection. Distributors can initiate conversations with customers about products that can help them do this.

When cleaning potentially contaminated areas, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing gloves and masks. In healthcare facilities, when cleaning rooms with infected patients, additional personal protective equipment (PPE) includes long-sleeve, cuffed gowns and protective eyewear.

Besides proper PPE, there are other safety precautions distributors can educate end users about. Following HHS guidelines, end users should reduce the size of crews working in a building, limit the amount of interaction between workers and keep workers at least three feet apart.

If distributors have enough accounts interested in emergency preparedness planning, they should stock up now on PPE, disposable tools, disinfectants, soaps and sanitizers, says Frank. If the number of pandemic cases continues to grow, there will be a shortage of supplies.