Posts

picture of vacuum on hard floor

How Can Cleaning Impact Indoor Air Quality?

As regulations begin to loosen and signs of normalcy begin to appear following the pandemic, officials have started to look at how we can reduce the impact of a future pandemic. That’s a good thing—this type of response has led to a number of public health and safety measures over our history. For example, after the cholera outbreak, substantial improvements made to sanitation and drinking water systems were responsible for the clean water many of us drink today.

One of the primary issues this pandemic has brought to our attention was just how easily viruses can travel in indoor environments. This has led to experts sounding the alarm for better indoor air quality (IAQ) measures and regulations. 

A few recent headlines: 

Federal officials seek better rules about schools’ indoor air quality in NBC News

Covid-19 proved bad indoor air quality makes us sick. We can fix that. in Vox.

Before the next pandemic, it’s time to regulate indoor air quality in Fast Company.

If your manager, safety director or executive team has yet to discuss indoor air quality and how cleaning can impact it, keep on reading, because they will. Cleaning can have a massive impact on the indoor air quality of a building—through seemingly simple things like the products we use, how we maintain tools and the processes we use to clean. 

It might not seem like a big deal, but if a cleaner vacuums the floor before dusting surfaces, is he or she effectively removing unwanted material from the building?

No.

And that remaining dust impacts IAQ.

But we should start there—with the definition of “clean.” 

What Is Clean?

We generally follow Dr. Michael Berry’s definition, which is that “clean” is an environment free of unwanted matter. So whether or not that environment is a hard or soft surface or the air, “clean” means that it is completely free of unwanted matter, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), dust, bacteria or viruses. 

A lot of people think that through the act of cleaning, much of the unwanted matter is removed. Sometimes this is the case.

But sometimes it’s not. And that’s what we want to focus on for this post. 

When not done properly, cleaning can have a negative impact on the health of building occupants. 

In his book, “Protecting the Built Environment: Cleaning for Health,” Michael Berry, Ph.D., says the following:

“A clean environment is sanitary. When a sanitary condition exists, an adverse health effect is unlikely. When environments are not properly maintained, sooner or later they will become unsanitary. There is no doubt about this natural fact. (108). 

He goes on to discuss the microscopic nature of pollutants in our indoor environments—an issue that was evidenced by the pandemic. Too often, we clean for appearance. Meaning that we clean for what the eye can see. To clean for health, we need to also effectively manage what we can’t see.

“What we think our cleaning equipment is accomplishing can be different from what it’s really doing,” said Berry. “Sometimes we assume that our cleaning equipment is extracting pollutants when it really isn’t. This is a common problem. 

“When we vacuum a carpet or floor, we usually see particles 40um and larger (a micrometer is 1/one millionth of a meter). When we’re finished, we can look around and feel confident that we have removed particles. And we probably have, but only the large ones. To protect our customers’ health, we must remove particles of all sizes, especially small ones of 10um and less.  They are too small to be seen by the eye alone. Small articles call for our best efforts and equipment. Not only are they hard to manage and capture, but they also tend to accumulate over time,” (109). 

How could IAQ measures impact the way we clean?

Because cleaning is inextricably tied to the quality of the indoor air, it’s probably a safe bet to assume that changes are coming to the way you clean if you’re not cleaning for health. 

Here are just a few ways that cleaning can have a negative impact on our health: 

  • Leaving behind cleaning chemical residue
  • Improperly diluting or mixing cleaning chemicals
  • Improper maintenance of cleaning equipment (e.g. not replacing vacuum filters on a regular basis)
  • Not using the right cleaning equipment for the job 
  • Not monitoring temperature, moisture or ventilation when cleaning
  • Improper disposal of waste (in solid, liquid or gas forms)
  • Lack of cleaning frequency
  • Absence of training
  • Ineffective cleaning processes

As Joseph Allen and John Macomber suggest in their book, “Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity,” cleaning equipment, such as a vacuum, is a healthcare tool.

“If you think of a several hundred dollar vacuum as a tool to clean your kids’ Cheerios off the floor, that seems exorbitant. But if you reframe that vacuum as a tool to protect you and your kids from chemicals and allergens in the dust, well that investment in a good vacuum now looks cheap. And it is. No one in their right mind should be spending a few hundred bucks for a sexy vacuum, but everyone should be spending that much for a vacuum that keeps your home or office healthier” (109).  

So, what are the processes, tools and equipment being used to clean your building? Are you cleaning for health or appearance? 

If you’re thinking about making a change, give us a call! We can put you in contact with one of the members of the Simon Institute who can speak to how cleaning for health has transformed their facilities.

Cleaning Conversations: Jeff Hawkins, Provo City School District

Approximately 70-75 percent of the custodial team at Provo City School District is comprised of students, so when schools closed in the spring, that left Jeff Hawkins and his team with a massive staffing shortage. With all hands on deck, staff from other departments pitched in to learn the (OS1) System and clean schools.

With so much of the current conversation focused around disinfection, Jeff talks about how the (OS1) System has prepared them for executing cleaning during a pandemic situation, so his team has the training, tools and program to keep students, teachers and staff safe.

Why Dirty Schools are a Big Problem—and What We Can Do to Clean Them Up

Last year, the Chicago Public School (CPS) system had a major cleaning problem on its hands. When it outsourced cleaning services, it promised the move would save the district money, provide cleaner schools and reduce responsibilities within individual schools.

That didn’t happen. 

An investigation by a local newspaper revealed that 91 of 125 schools failed cleanliness inspections by an outside inspector, and the Chicago Board of Education wanted action. They wanted accountability from the contractors hired to oversee cleaning duties.  

Roaches, dirty floors, missing restroom supplies were just a few of the issues. Several cleaners reported that they used personal funds to purchase cleaning supplies. Within the schools, so many hands were tied. Administrators couldn’t do anything about the issue. Teachers started leaving, dismayed by the filthy environment and kids—well, the kids suffered the most. 

The Issue with Dirty Schools

A lot of people want to know what REALLY happens when schools are dirty. The truth is, a lot can happen.

Former EPA scientist Dr. Michael Berry has studied the impact of cleaning on our schools extensively. In his study “Educational Performance, Environmental Management, and Cleaning  Effectiveness in School Environments,” he concludes, “effective cleaning programs enhance school and student positive self-image, and may promote overall higher academic attendance and performance.”

While Dr. Berry was specifically making the case for effective maintenance as a strategy for revitalizing aging city schools, he demonstrated the link between a school’s environmental quality and the educational performance of its students. Ultimately, he says, clean schools are not just an issue for parents and school staff, but our communities.  

Dr. Michael Berry creates the link between a dirty school, poor performance and the impact on our communities.

A few weeks ago, we shared an awesome letter to the editor from a concerned parent in a school district that was outsourcing its custodial services. She (legitimately) questioned how students would be impacted through the move. 

Here are just a few of the problems associated with dirty schools: 

1. Increased illnesses and absenteeism. 

2. Reduced performance.

3. Students and staff take less pride in the school, which reduces moral.

4. Schools experience higher teacher and employee turnover. Higher turnover impacts student’s learning and opportunities for achievement. 

5. Reduced property value. 

What We Can Do About Dirty Schools

There are a lot of clean schools in our country, but there are also a lot of really dirty schools as well, and it shouldn’t take an investigation to reveal issues with cleanliness. A lot of times the cleanliness of a school is tied to funding, not surprisingly.

As a parent, school administrator or just concerned citizen, what can you do to help make sure we’re offering a clean and safe facility for children to learn and grow?

1. Improve job descriptions for janitors. According to the National Education Association, 38 percent of janitors have no job description and 32 percent of those who do have a job description feel it does not match the scope of their work. Make sure job descriptions have been updated and accurately reflect the work the janitor performs. An effective scope of work is the first step to making sure cleaning is performed as required.

2. Allocate funds for training. Too often, we put a vacuum or mop in a janitor’s hand and tell them to clean, assuming they know what to do… but they often don’t. By allocating funds for cleaning programs, products and training, school custodians can have the tools they need to clean properly, while also understanding the basic science of their job, including microbiology, how to prevent cross contamination, etc. 

3. Scrutinize RFPs before they go to bid. Cleaning services have become increasingly commoditized, so it’s important to make sure that when your district issues an RFP, specs for cleaning are clearly identified so services aren’t cut to the lowest priced bidder.  Green Seal’s GS-42 is a great framework for an RFP.

4. Advocate for better cleaning standards and programs. As Dr. Campbell noted in his report Clean Schools Initiative, “National cleaning, facility and education associations, states, school districts, etc. must establish a common vocabulary with clearly identified standards, training competencies, measures and outcomes that focus on healthy environments that improve quality of life and human performance.” 

If you’re looking to turn around a cleaning program at a school, we’ve got you covered. Just check out this case study from the Provo City Schools that showed how a systematic approach to cleaning was able to reverse some of the all-too-familiar challenges of a poor cleaning program.

5. Thank a Cleaner. While it might seem tongue-in-cheek, the single most important thing a parent, student, teacher or administrator can do to improve cleaning in schools is show appreciation for the people doing the cleaning. The task is hard and often thankless, so showing custodial workers that you see them and appreciate the work they are doing goes a long way. 

As the late Nelson Mandela wrote, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

As children across the nation prepare to return to schools, let’s do what we can to provide an optimal learning environment for them. Clean schools matter.