Maintenance Management: Clean and Safe

Earlier this year, a marble divider in a Utah elementary school washroom stall collapsed and broke into a dozen pieces.

A young boy in the stall escaped injury - the divider fell away from him. Still, reporters interviewed the boy, his parents, the principal of the school and a maintenance department administrator. The boy's parents worried how safe this 50-year-old school might be. The principal and the district administrator stated that they did the best job they could with the available funds and staffing.

The overall message conveyed to the public? Schools don't have enough money to take care of schools, and school districts don't take enough care in maintaining their buildings.

Those of us who have been working in education for a long time know that schools have never had enough money to take care of their facilities. That is why so many school districts are having problems today. Deferred maintenance is the rule rather than the exception.

The collapsed washroom partition in that school is more than just an example of how a particular district handles its maintenance. It is a symbol of how everyone seems to view washroom maintenance. Washrooms get a lot of attention and a lot of abuse.

A BATTLE FOR CLEANLINESS Custodians spend hours each day cleaning restrooms, and maintenance personnel spend a great deal of time repairing and replacing fixtures. They need to - students spend hours each day in washrooms, the most unsupervised rooms in a school facility, undoing much of what maintenance and custodial personnel have done. Consequently, washrooms demand special consideration when dealing with maintenance problems.

Maintaining a washroom is much like dealing with a disease. Illnesses come in two basic forms: chronic diseases (long-term diseases that may go on for years as a patient deteriorates) and acute diseases (which have a short span, but can quickly become deadly). Problems in washrooms can be either or both.

To combat these problems, the daily cleaning and sanitary maintenance of a washroom area should go hand in hand with the physical maintenance of the structure, fixtures and plumbing. In many organizations, this does not happen. Maintenance and custodial services do not always work together well, and the result is a poorly maintained washroom. Sometimes, even if the two departments do work well together, individual vigilance by school employees is not what it should be.

DISCOURAGING GERMS AND VANDALISM Here are some ideas for dealing with sick washrooms:

- Chronic problems in washrooms generally are due to a lack of daily care. If custodians do not know how to clean properly and do not know how to use cleaning chemicals correctly, they can inflict a great amount of damage. Abrasive cleaners, acids and improper or dirty tools all can cause problems. The results are burned and worn-off fixture chrome, damaged wood surfaces, and scratched and worn sink coverings. Replacing these damaged items can cost a great deal of money; a little training and supervision could prevent the damage.

Worse than that is the effect on the school climate. When things look dirty or uncared for, students are less likely to respect them. That can lead to vandalism.

Other chronic problems often result from some type of flaw in the original construction. For instance, a drain may continually plug up because the plumbing was installed improperly.

- One of the major complaints of building occupants is odor. Many large buildings have washrooms with little or no ventilation. If ventilators are hard to get at, motors often burn up or belts break, and repairs get put off. Some operations try to solve the problem with coverups, such as deodorizers. This is not effective. Look for the root of a problem before you try to solve it. The answer you get may not be what you want, but it is better to deal in truths than with supposition.

- Any type of safety problem should be reported immediately. I have seen dozens of washrooms with poorly anchored basins that are ready to fall off the wall. Cracked mirrors also are a serious concern - when glass starts shattering on a ceramic tile floor, the injuries can be numerous.

Employees who frequent these rooms daily (custodians, administrators and teachers) should take the responsibility to report any kind of loose fixtures or other safety problems. Unfortunately, many people think reporting a problem is enough. All employees in a school should feel responsible for keeping their buildings safe and healthy.

- Because of the difficulty monitoring washrooms and the suspicion people may have of anyone, including school personnel, that is hanging around these areas, the maintenance department should immediately check out work orders submitted for washroom repairs and correct the problem as quickly as possible.

Often small problems in washrooms quickly turn into big ones. One student picking grout from between the bricks above a basin can lead to a whole wall that has had the grout completely removed. Vandalism breeds vandalism.

Maintenance staff in Chicago's schools are keeping the buildings there cleaner than they have been in years.

A survey conducted for Chicago Public Schools finds that 84 percent of the district's schools are meeting new, more stringent standards for cleanliness. That compares with a study five years ago that found only 10 percent of the schools were in good condition.

The school system attributes the improvement to several factors: privatizing cleaning service at many schools; new standards and inspections; more training, and a sizable investment in building repair.

In 1995, Chicago Public Schools had no written standards for cleaning facilities. Now, the district says in a news release, it has established "very high standards, based on those typically found in privately owned commercial buildings."

Schools that fail to meet standards in any of eight cleaning categories face consequences. At schools with privatized services, the contractors are given 30 days to meet standards or they are replaced. At schools that employ their own custodians, the principal is held accountable. "If a school's leadership cannot keep the school clean, the administration intervenes with `blitz' cleaning, training sessions and - when necessary - leadership changes," according to a district news release.

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