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It’s Flu Season: Please Protect Your Cleaners

Last year’s flu season claimed the lives of 80,000 people, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, making it the deadliest season on record in more than four decades. Last year’s flu season was unique in that the virus didn’t remain isolated in a particular area of the country. A CDC spokesperson shared that for three consecutive weeks, “the entire continental US was affected by the flu at a very high level.”

November typically marks the start of flu season, so runny noses are already starting to fill classrooms, offices, hotel rooms and cafeterias everywhere. A few months ago, we shared information about how to clean to stop the spread of the flu virus, but it’s equally important to protect the people at the front line of flu prevention: your custodial staff. A kitchen staff wouldn’t come to work on a busy night without tools like gloves and knives, so your cleaning staff should be equally prepared when it comes to cleaning during flu season.

Here are seven easy ways that you as a custodial professional can make sure your team is protected:

  1. Make flu shots easy and accessible. Depending on the business type, a nurse may already be available onsite to administer flu shots to custodial personnel, but most times this is not the case. Make it easy for workers to get their flu shots by providing them with a list of nearby locations where they can get the flu shot and giving them time off work (just 15-30 minutes is all they need) to do so. If time off work isn’t an option, consider arranging for a professional to come to your facility and administer shots to staff during the start or end of their shift. The CDC offers this guide for promoting the flu vaccine within your business. 
  2. Educate workers on the differences between cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing. Before the start of flu season, consider providing a short training session on microbiology basics. You know the drill—cleaning removes dirt and germs, disinfecting kills germs, sanitizing reducing germs to a safe level. Make sure your team understands the difference between each type of cleaning, along with how to disinfect properly by allowing disinfectants the proper amount of dwell time to be effective.
  3. Protect workers with the proper personal protective equipment (PPE). From gloves to eye protection and face masks, equip workers with the necessary PPE to prevent them from coming into direct contact with airborne viruses or bacteria resting on surfaces being cleaned—or from exposure to quaternary-based cleaners. 

    Did you know? The average sneezing distance is anywhere from 3 to 26 feet!

  4. Implement hand-washing protocol. When arriving at work, one of the first things custodians should do is wash their hands to remove any dirt or bacteria they may have carried in with them. Even if they’ve used protective gloves throughout their shift, encourage them to wash their hands when they have completed cleaning responsibilities or before/after taking a break as they may have come into contact with a virus during that period. Regular hand washing not only helps protect custodial workers, it also helps prevent them from spreading germs as they clean.
  5. Encourage sick workers to stay home. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, the average sneezing distance is anywhere from 3 to 26 feet—no one wants to be in the direct line of fire of that! Sick workers can not only spread viruses and bacteria throughout the building (and to others on staff), they can also become sicker. Reduce “presenteeism” by making sure employees understand what leave is available to them and encouraging a workplace environment that values health and wellness. 
  6. Reduce cross contamination with standardized cleaning processes. From dirty tools to processes driven by employee whim, a lot of cleaning programs lack standardization and leave the door open to issues like cross contamination, missed surfaces and ultimately polluting the indoor environment. Prevent this from happening by using an engineered, scientific approach to cleaning tasks that allows you to measure the work performed. 
  7. Increase fomite cleaning frequencies in custodial areas too. When the flu season hits, one of the first things many custodial workers do is increase the cleaning and disinfection of high touch surfaces such as door handles, hand rails, light switches and faucet knobs throughout the building. Make sure to include areas frequented by custodial professionals in this effort too, including custodial closets, break rooms and lockers. 

It’s estimated that the last flu season cost employers more than $21 billion in lost productivity. Because your team is on the front lines of preventing the spread of this virus that will inevitably appear in your facility at some point this year, make sure your team is prepared—and protected—in the fight. 

How to Clean to Stop the Flu Virus [with INFOGRAPHIC]

$9 billion: That’s the number experts predict this year’s flu season will cost employers in lost productivity, according to the Denver Post. While many employers are asking employees to stay home if they experience symptoms, this strain is particularly aggressive and lasts longer than strains we’ve experienced in the past—affected individuals can be contagious for up to seven days.

When it comes to dealing with the virus in the workplace, one of the biggest issues is that most workers are reluctant to take that much time off work—if any. In fact, an annual survey by Staples shows that nearly 80 percent of workers admit to coming into work when they’re sick. They fear falling behind and missing out on a promotion, or they simply can’t afford to take the time off, leading to “presenteeism” — something 67 percent of employers say is even worse for business than an employee who stays home.

So what does that mean for employers? Workplaces can quickly become a breeding ground for the spread of the virus, often through common surfaces or “fomites.” The Centers for Disease Control suggests that one of the most important things an employer can do is to maintain a clean environment—a critical step not enough businesses follow. But cleaning has long been key to stopping the spread of viruses and disease; it was Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), the founder of modern nursing, who provided our initial understanding of the importance of cleaning to manage disease.

From the perspective of a cleaning professional, you might hear questions about how your employees clean, what they clean and how often they are cleaning.  Here are a few steps you should keep in mind as you develop a cleaning program to combat the spread of the flu (or any virus) in your workplace:

1. Communicate with business owners, property managers and/or other individuals responsible for health and wellness. Be prepared to discuss your current responsibilities and set expectations for what your department can and cannot do when it comes to cleaning. If you need additional budget to perform additional cleaning tasks or purchase inventory, let them know.

2. Conduct a staff inservice. While it might not seem like a priority during a busy period, good training is critical to effective execution. You can’t just hand a custodian a cloth and tell them to clean more often — cleaning workers must thoroughly understand the virus and requirements for disinfection. This includes basic principles such as the routes of transmission, dwell time and hand washing protocols. This training will help reinforce proper cleaning principles, allowing time for cleaning agents to work and effectively killing the virus as employees clean surfaces throughout the building. In addition to written instruction, training should include vivid illustrations (for those with reading difficulties) and hands-on training in handwashing, personal protective equipment and proper disinfection methods. Our Microbiology for Cleaning Workers can be an effective guide for you.

Training should include vivid illustrations for custodians with reading difficulties.

3. Increase cleaning frequencies. Depending on the size of your building(s) and the type of your operation (e.g. in-house department versus contract), one of the easiest things you can do to limit the spread of the flu is to increase cleaning frequencies. If your department typically cleans in the evening after the building is vacated, you can assign a day porter who is responsible for cleaning fomites, or high-touch areas throughout the building. These cleaning frequencies should be adjusted based on building occupancy, traffic and severity of the outbreak. For example, a restroom in an emergency room requires much more frequent cleaning than a restroom in a private office building.

4. Focus on fomites! Identify the most commonly touched areas in the building and make sure these surfaces are cleaned and disinfected regularly. Such surfaces might include door handles, light switches, telephones, microwave buttons, conference room tables and vending machines. We’ve developed an infographic you can download and print to share with cleaning workers and building occupants to help keep common fomites top of mind.

5. Emphasize hand hygiene. We’ve all heard that we’re supposed to say the “ABCs” or sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice while we’re washing our hands, but how many people really do it? During a flu outbreak, it’s critical to remind both cleaning workers and building occupants of the importance of hand washing. The CDC offers several downloadable signs you can place around your building as a friendly reminder. We also have a user-friendly hand washing coloring book for kids ages eight to 80-plus.

6. Prepare for what could come next. Leaders from the CDC recently reported that the flu season is “probably peaking” right now, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared if it takes a turn for the worse. As we highlighted in this post about pandemic preparedness, a playbook that identifies key responsibilities within your department and action plans for people to fill-in should custodial staff become ill. If you don’t have a playbook ready, we’ve got you covered.

The key is to be ready for whatever could come your way.