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School Janitors: So Much More than a Line Item in a Budget

You don’t need to walk far into your neighborhood store to see it’s back to school season. With end caps of glue sticks and aisles of pencils, paper and folders with everything from kittens to Avengers characters greeting you, it’s a time of year that brings excitement and new beginnings.

But in the town of Saugus, Massachusetts, just north of Boston, 21 school custodians will not return to school this year. The School Committee recently ruled to outsource services, igniting what the local paper called a “firestorm” of protests from local residents.

After the firing of 21 janitors, residents of Saugus, Mass., ask what will happen to the health and safety of students in their district.

More than 3,300 local residents signed a petition calling for reinstatement of the janitors. A high school student spoke, saying that the custodians are a “vital part of the school community who make students feel safe and supported.” 

Despite the protests, the Committee proceeded with the vote to outsource custodial services to a private cleaning company. According to the Superintendent, the move was part of a “reallocation of resources” estimated to save the district more than $1 million. 

This may sound familiar, as it happens far too often.  

We’ve gotta give it up for the people in this committee for understanding the importance of the custodial workers in their schools. If you’re reading this blog, you know how important cleaning is to a community. This letter to the editor from Saugus resident Erin McCabe sums it beautifully.

To the editor:

I feel the safety of our children is being overlooked. With limited custodians our children are placed at higher risk of health issues. 

These are just some of my concerns:

1. With limited custodial services, dust will most likely accumulate causing an increase risk of asthma attacks.

2. With limited custodial services, who will be cleaning up vomit and blood? Will there even be a custodian in each school to clean these pathogens, or will staff and students have to wait for someone who is trained in cleaning blood-borne pathogens? Thus exposing our children and their staff.

3. With limited custodial services, what will flu season look like for our children, when stomach bugs flood our school, will we see absences rise? Clearly not what we want for our students……..right?

4. With limited custodial services who will be maintaining our brand new high school/middle school. Will it remain in pristine shape for all future students? Probably not.

5. With limited custodial services, will we be able to host after school events, events on weekends? Such activities as our town basketball leagues etc … these activities are important and necessary for our community!

6. With limited custodial services, what will be put into place to maintain our children’s safety?

To read the full letter, please go to: https://saugus.wickedlocal.com/news/20190624/letter-to-editor-safety-of-our-children-is-being-overlooked

Thank you, Erin and the entire Saugus community, for recognizing the important work of a well staffed, trained and equipped custodial program. School custodians are so much more than a line item in a budget. They are key to ensuring healthy and safe environments for our children, as well as maximizing the investment in the buildings they clean. 

Want to Reduce Turnover and Improve Productivity? Start by Listening.

We’ve been talking to a lot of (OS1) users recently, gathering input on what they experience on a day-to-day basis so we can improve our training. At Symposium, we speak with leaders of organizations like Sandia National Labs, University of Texas at Austin, Los Angeles Habilitation House, Michigan State University and others to identify best practices, but what about the people actually doing the cleaning? What ideas do the janitor—(OS1) specialists—have for improvement?

A common concern we’ve heard is regarding the general absence of meaningful communication between custodial workers and their department leaders. This is an issue in organizations everywhere—not just (OS1) organizations, cleaning organizations, big corporations or small start-ups. 

As business leaders, we tend to get so caught up in the day-to-day that we don’t take the time to engage our teams. Meaning, we’re the ones doing most of the talking and don’t take much time to listen. Dr. Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People said, “If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Fun fact: The average person has an eight-second attention span. Listening is a learned skill that takes practice, but when done well, can create more productive teams.

But listening isn’t something that comes easily to many of us. We spend years learning how to write and speak, but listening isn’t often (ever?) taught in school. It’s an adapted skill that we learn and refine (or not!) over the course of time. Have you ever taken a listening class? If you’re like us, there’s a good chance that answer is “no.” 

A leading consulting firm found that organizations that communicate regularly with their staff — and do a good job of listening — are likely to have lower turnover. This isn’t surprising, because communication helps eliminate the opportunities for misunderstanding so that everyone is on the same page. But the average human has an eight-second attention span, so we could all probably use some room for improvement.

So how can you become a become a better listener? Here are a few ideas: 

  1. Just listen. A lot of listening is just that—truly listening. When someone takes the time to speak, focus your mind on what that person is saying rather than that list of “to-do” items sitting on your desk. Don’t interrupt or attempt to offer solutions as the person is talking, just listen. 
  2. Put the phone away. Let the employee know that they are your immediate priority when you are speaking to them. Your phone might buzz or ring, but by disregarding the impulse to pick it up, you’re showing the employee that they have your full attention and are truly listening to what they are saying. 
  3. Check your preconceived notions at the door. If you think you know what the other person is going to say before you go into a conversation with them, you’re already halfway down the path of not listening. Clear your mind so you are truly open to what they have to say.
  4. Consider timing. It’s hard to be a good listener if the other person isn’t willing to talk. If this is the case, try catching members of your team while they are working. Custodial workers spend a lot of time with their thoughts because they often work alone, so by making it a priority to check in with your team when they are working, you may catch them in their comfort zone and get a better understanding of what’s on their mind.
  5. Ask more questions. A lot of times, we want to help offer solutions or solve problems for people on our team. Rather than responding with an answer right away, ask more questions. This can help create a safer space for the employee and encourage them to speak more. 
  6. Summarize what was said. Active listening is a common communication tool people use to let the other person know that they heard what was said. In addition to validating that you are listening, repeating a summary of someone’s statements back to them helps clear up any miscommunication that may have occurred. 
  7. Silence your inner interrupter. When we think we know what the other person is saying, we can have a tendency to jump into the conversation and respond before the person is done speaking. This can be detrimental to the conversation, not only causing the person to shut down, but also possibly shifting the speaker’s intent in another direction. It can be extremely difficult in some situations, but it’s a best practice to always wait until the other person is finished speaking.

Our 10 Most Read Blog Posts of 2018

The final days in December provide us with a wonderful opportunity to hit the pause button and step back for a moment. It’s a time when a lot of us dig into our drawers for the napkin where we outlined our goals and objectives for the year so we can see how well we did in accomplishing them. It’s also time to think about our professional goals for the upcoming year identify ways to get there—much as the Roman god “Janus” from whom the word “janitor” is derived looks to both the past and the future.

This year was a rough one for us. Despite the passing of our founder, John Walker, just a few months ago, we are more committed and inspired than ever to carrying out his legacy. The individual who cleans—the janitor, custodian, housekeeper, maid—whatever title you wish to use, was the focus of much of his work. He made it his mission to bring recognition to the those who play such a critical role in keeping our buildings clean and its occupants safe. 

This focus often gets lost in the industry conversation about how we can cut costs, improve productivity and clean faster. Yet, as our most read blog posts of the year shows, focusing on the worker is what resonates with readers of our blog the most. We are also committed to cleaning more safely and in a way that brings dignity and respect to the cleaning workers. 

We can’t wait to share some of our new educational products and initiatives with you in 2019. If you want to stay up-to-date with what we’ll be launching, make sure you have subscribed to our newsletter. And as you make your list of professional goals for 2019, know that we would love to help you get there. Whether it’s by joining the more than 3,000 individuals who have attended Janitor University, through our online learning resources or the many books available in our store, we have a variety of resources that can be used within any custodial organization. 

Here’s to helping our custodial teams clean better and more safely in 2019!

Here are our most read blog posts of 2018:

  1. Custodial Injuries: Why Legislators Are Starting to Act: On the heels of a Cal/OSHA vote to enact legislation to protect hotel housekeepers from musculoskeletal injuries, we dig into the most common custodial injuries. 
  2. Think Janitor is a Dirty Word: This 2017 post continued to resonate with visitors, as it was our second highest read post this year. In it, we look at the origin of the word “janitor” and show how it is actually tied to deity. 
  3. The Heart of Cleaning: A look at several cleaners making a big difference in the world. 
  4. Thank a Cleaner: Shining a light on the difficult and thankless task of custodial work. 
  5. How to Clean to Stop the Flu Virus: This popular blog post and infographic highlights the common issue of presenteeism and practical steps custodial professionals can take to limit the spread of the flu virus. 
  6. Easy Ways to Energize Your Employees in 2018: This comprehensive list helps managers keep their team motivated and excited about work. 
  7. Training for Different Learning Styles: Understanding the VARK model of learning styles and tailoring training materials so workers can get the most out of them. 
  8. 4 Things Every Custodial Job Description Should Include: Just like every great dish is made of great ingredients, the same goes for developing a great custodial worker. 
  9. 5 Easy Ways to Attract Millennials: Strategies for recruiting younger members to your team. 
  10. 3 Things You Need for Your Custodial Program to be Successful: Looking closely at the “three-legged stool of cleaning” and why we shouldn’t just assume that anyone can clean. 

Wishing you and yours a great holiday season and kick-off to 2019!

The Top 10 Complaints of Custodial Professionals

You’re in a tough business—we’ll just put that out there. The people who make it in this industry are problem solvers. Every day, they put together a new puzzle — figuring out which piece needs to go where to complete the puzzle of a clean building. Maybe one piece involves covering for a janitor who called off work and another is delayed supply delivery… each day presents a unique set of challenges. 

When we go into a new business to set them up on the (OS1) System, we often hear a common set of complaints. It doesn’t matter if it’s a laboratory on the east coast or a University in California. A very common set of issues exist for custodial professionals everywhere. So you know you’re not alone, we’ve pulled together a list of complaints and frustrations that we hear.

The top 10 frustrations experienced by custodial professionals include:

1. Not enough/broken/wrong equipment. People who don’t understand cleaning don’t realize that you need more than a vacuum and a microfiber mop to keep floor surfaces clean. In addition to cordless equipment, carpet extractors, burnishers, strippers and dryers are all necessary pieces of equipment to maintain and protect floor surfaces—at least if you don’t want to replace carpet or tile every few years. 

2. Chemical musical chairs. Too often, custodial professionals are at the whim of their purchasing department when it comes to buying cleaning chemicals. While the type of chemical might be the same, the brand might be different which can cause confusioTop n for custodial workers. Standardization is key in order to establish effective SDS programs and reduce injuries. 

3. Not enough mats/no matting at all. Keeping floors clean inside the building starts well before someone walks through the front door. A combination of scraper and entryway matting can help trap dirt before it tracks onto the floors. But adequate matting is only half of the puzzle—mats need to be regularly laundered so they can work as designed.

4.  No training resources. Overcoming the common misconception that “everyone knows how to clean” is one of the biggest challenges faced by custodial professionals. An effective custodial operation will have an established classroom training program that includes training aids, videos, work-flow charts and tools to assist with comprehension. 

A training classroom equipped with training materials is key to developing a high-performing and engaged custodial team.

5. Supervisory void/exasperated supervision. Supervisors are in a tough spot—not only are they responsible for overseeing custodial workers, they are also often the point of contact for building occupants whenever there’s an issue. Custodial supervisors need to be well trained to do the job properly— and well compensated.

6. Unmotivated staff/skeptical staff. When dealing with so many nationalities, personality types and ages, it can be tough to get custodial workers to rally behind a greater goal or the vision for creating a clean indoor environment. Training, compensation and a structure for advancement can all help workers buy-in to your organizational goals. 

7. Lack of respect. Every now and then, you’ll see a news story about an elementary school that surprises a custodian with a generous act to show their appreciation, but the large majority of custodial workers feel invisible in the buildings where they work. Even if employees work at night, recognizing workers through appreciation events such as International Housekeepers Week or Custodial Workers Recognition day can help bolster morale and help workers feel that they are respected. 

8. Rotating door. For a lot of people, custodial work is a “filler” job. By that, we mean that it’s something people do to supplement their income for a period of time or maybe it’s something that helps get them by in their pursuit of another position. This often leads to high turnover rates. Providing opportunities for advancement, recognition and living wage compensation will help close this door. 

9. Injuries. Because of the strenuous nature of custodial work, a lot of custodial professionals experience injuries— in fact, double the number of injuries compared to other industries. By training workers and helping them warm up for their work day, we can help reduce these injuries.

10. Lack of input. How many times has your department been tasked with cleaning a new building that you’ve had no input in designing? Not giving custodial professionals a seat at the table of broader organizational decisions (like new building construction) can leave money on the table.

Have an issue we haven’t covered? Let us know, we’ll add it to our next list!

From the History Books: How the White Wings Cleaned up New York City

Have you ever heard of Colonel George Waring? He’s kind of a big deal in the cleaning and sanitation world. Before he fought in the Civil War, Colonel Waring was a city engineer in New York, where he gained recognition for his work reclaiming the swampland that would become New York’s Central Park. He had helped develop a first-of-its kind drainage system that allowed for the lakes and ponds within the parks, while leaving the remainder of the land dry. 

Following his success in New York, Waring left for Memphis, where he engineered a dual sewer and drainage system that separated storm runoff from septic waste. This ended decades of waterborne illnesses and diseases, including cholera, which had plagued the city for decades. 

Lacking any formalized sanitation and refuse system, New York City was drowning in garbage and filth in the late 1800s. Its current mayor, William Strong, called for Waring to return and assume the position of sanitation engineer. The job of tackling the city’s overwhelming sanitation issues would be no easy feat, and Waring approached the job as he would approach combat on the battlefield. 

Colonel George Waring transformed the image of the sanitation department in New York, dressing workers in white so they would be affiliated with hygiene and cleanliness.

His first initiative was to build an army of cleaners, equipped with ashcans and broomsticks as their weapons. But before he cleaned up the streets, he knew he needed to clean up the perception of the cleaners. 

Street cleaners of the day were known for accepting bribes and generally slacking off on the job. To transform this image, Waring assembled a force of more than two thousand sanitation “soldiers” who were clad completely in white, from the white caps on their heads down to the pants covering their legs. The motivation was to associate workers with hygiene (though other sources indicate that it was to also make workers obvious and easily identifiable should they feel compelled to skip off to the saloon during their shift).

According to an article in Collector’s Weekly, Waring’s military-like structure included “very clearly defined tasks, like someone was assigned to sweep from this corner to that corner 10 blocks down, and they were going to do it inside these eight hours, and this cart was going to follow and the driver of the cart had these set hours. If there were any problems, the officer immediately in charge of that crew would have to answer for them, and then the officer above had to answer for the larger regional work.” 

With his system in place, Waring and his army set to clean the poorest sections of the city (the more affluent areas had enlisted private cleaning services to clean up their streets). Initially, the sanitation workers were met with resistance, and local residents threw rocks and bricks at workers, fearful they intended to displace them. By the end of two weeks, the White Wings had won them over because their neighborhoods were clean. Eventually, the piles of trash throughout the city had been completely cleared.

After seven months of Waring’s sanitation leadership, The New York Times reported: “Clean streets at last… Marvels have been done.”

Workers clean up the streets of New York in the late 1800s.

Robin Nagle, author of Picking Up, noted, “These men became heroes because, for the first time in anyone’s memory, they actually cleaned the city. It was a very bright day in the history of the department…Rates of preventable disease went down. Mortality rates went down. It also had a ripple effect across all different areas of the city.”

Cleaning as a hygiene issue. A systematic approach to cleaning. Improving the perception of cleaners. Sound familiar?

  

The Problem with the Way We’re Training Custodial Workers Today

So he could afford his daughter’s tuition at a local private school, Bob took on a second job as a custodian at the school. He looked forward to the job, much of his day was spent behind a desk, so custodial work would keep him active and involved in her school. He was also was excited to learn something new.

On his first day, Bob showed up for work and was shown a short movie about cleaning chemicals and how to use them. Next, his boss showed him his cart which overflowed with spray bottles, cloths, bags, gloves, floor scrapers and mops. “Duane’s going to show you around tonight,” he advised. “Tomorrow you’ll start on your own.”

“I’ve been doing this for 22 years,” Duane told him as they walked between classrooms. “I know they say to clean from top to bottom, but I’ve got a great system down that works for me.”

The next day, Bob was on his own. The work was hard—much harder than he expected. He strained his back emptying trash and his hands cramped from mopping the floor. When he woke up the next morning, he had trouble getting out of bed. After a few weeks, Bob quit. He found another job at a local warehouse that would help him supplement tuition costs. But had he received the proper training, there’s a good chance Bob would still be there today.

 

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Injury caused from improper lifting or repetitive motions is just one of the many issues that can result when we neglect to train our custodial workers. In many cleaning operations, custodial training includes a hodgepodge of show-and-tell, classroom-style instruction and vendor-led training programs specific to a particular product. Very few cleaning operations have a comprehensive training program in place that not only teaches employees HOW to clean, but WHY they clean. Training should not only provide workers with the overall understanding of why their jobs are critical and how cleaning impacts the health of people in the buildings they clean, but also protocols for how and when to perform specific cleaning tasks.

Last week, we held our annual (OS1) Coach Class. This intensive two-day program provides trainers and instructors with the latest information and resources needed to maintain a world-class cleaning program. One of the key benefits to this class is that participants share best practices and insights they have gathered as they plan their schedule for the upcoming year. We are continually updating our curriculum so that all of the (OS1) trainers and coaches have the most recent research and data to support their cleaning protocols. The coaches then take these training programs back to their facilities and use them to conduct ongoing education for their custodial teams during the next year. 

Participants in our (OS1) Coach Class spend an intensive two days learning and planning custodial training programs for 2018.

Our studies have found that cleaning operations supported with a comprehensive training program, such as that which is provided within the (OS1) System, can improve productivity by as much as 16 percent. In one example, the average square footage of cleaning productivity (SFPE) improved from approximately 27,000 SFPE to 39,000 SFPE. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Cleaning workers understand their importance of their work as it relates to the success of the business and the health of building occupants.
  2. They are taught how to properly perform cleaning tasks in a way that minimizes risk and injury.
  3. Workers are empowered through the educational process and receive one-on-one coaching by expert trainers.

It’s time we stop treating custodial work like it’s something that everyone automatically knows how to do. We can’t just throw a mop in someone’s hand and expect them to go to work. This approach results in the issues many cleaning operations face today: injuries, high turnover and low-morale. Cleaning is a profession, and like any professional field requires proper training and education.

As Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, once said, “The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.”

If you don’t have a comprehensive training program in place for new employees and continuing education programs for your current staff members, it’s time to give some thought to how you can improve these resources. Your cleaning program deserves more and so do your employees.

Provo City Schools Research Part II: The Importance of Measuring Cleaning

In the first part of this series, we explored the definition of “clean.” Now that we know what “clean” is, how do we get there? Ah, the million dollar question.

Just as no single agreed-upon definition of “clean” exists, no single standard or process for cleaning exists. As a result, we measure janitorial productivity in a variety of ways, which is largely dependent on the type of facility being cleaned.

To understand the importance of measurement, we’ll first look ways cleaning programs are currently measured, and then we’ll review a few examples of the benefits of measurement through a standardized approach to cleaning.

Current Strategies for Measuring Productivity and Their Limitations:

Visual Inspections: A visual inspection may reveal if a surface looks clean (e.g. is free from dirt or dust), but it does not reveal what is invisible to the eye, such as bacteria or viruses. Visual inspections are most common in retail environments where the emphasis is on appearance.

Cost-Per-Square-Foot Method: Often cleaning professionals want to evaluate cleaning productivity by establishing the cost for cleaning their facility. This method can present obstacles because of different surfaces that may or may not be factored into the equation. For example, do you factor the tops of books on a shelf as cleanable square footage? Should table surfaces be included as well? Not all cost-per-square foot method evaluations are created equally.

ATP Meter Readings: One of the newer methods for measuring cleanliness is Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) Testing. ATP is an enzyme present in all living cells; ATP meters detect the amount of organic mater that remains on a surface after cleaning. This method can lead to discrepancies between testers and not provide a true reflection of the cleanliness (or dirtiness) of a surface.

When we look at cleaning in an academic settings, the need for effective cleaning and cleaning measurement becomes most apparent.

Why Clean Schools Matter

In Dr. Campbell’s Provo City Schools research, he states:

Standards set a level of safety and performance for most industries. Therefore, a cleaning standard that ensures the building’s air quality, safety and health of the people therein should exist. Research shows that students in K-12 schools have improved capacity to learn when school environments are clean.

He identifies a survey conducted by the National Parent Teacher Association that revealed that cleanliness in schools was so insufficient that more than half of teachers (56 percent) purchase their own cleaning supplies to clean their classrooms.

While the immediate response might be to look at the school janitor, Dr. Campbell is quick to highlight research from the National Education Association that supports the need for better job descriptions for janitors:

* 38 percent of janitors have no job description

* 32 percent of those who do have a job description feel it does not match the scope of their work

64 percent of janitors often or sometimes perform work outside of their job description

YIKES. So teachers are taking it on themselves to clean their classrooms, but janitors are left with their hands in the air, because they aren’t clear on their responsibilities.

Why does this matter? Because the confusion surrounding the issue and the absence of a standardized approach and effective cleaning measurement tool to cleaning goes beyond issues of infection control and cross contamination.

Research shows that indoor air pollution (resulting from cleaning chemicals, dust and other particulates that can be breathed in) can result in lower work performance and higher rates of sickness.

Dr. Campbell cites multiple sources, including this research published in Indoor Air, Dr. Berry’s study at Charles Young Elementary School and this study published in Indoor Air Journal — all offering conclusive evidence that indoor pollutants negatively impact student health and performance.

Clean schools are healthier and more productive. But how can we make sure our schools are clean if there’s difficulty measuring janitorial productivity and cleanliness?

In the part three of this blog series, we’ll review how a standardized approach to cleaning establishes measures for janitorial productivity and positively impacts health and the indoor environment, as evidenced by the study at Dixon Middle School.