Teachers have the "germiest" jobs in America. That's what Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, has concluded. Alongside more than 50 million students, teachers spend every school day trapped inside buildings with millions of invisible pathogens such as staph, E-Coli, shigella, influenza, MRSA and mold — pathogens that can cause serious illness and sometimes death.
Only one professional can do anything about getting rid of germs once they have infected buildings: the school custodian. Custodians should be the first line of defense against pathogens in schools. Unfortunately, most are not trained or equipped to deal with this invisible world. They are armed with antiquated tools — mops and buckets, rags and spray bottles — that don't effectively remove bacteria or other micro-contaminants. In fact, they can spread it around, becoming disseminators that carry disease from surface to surface, classroom to classroom. As Gerba has noted, "Mops and rags give germs a free ride …. You can actually make things worse … if you are not cleaning properly."
Facility maintenance managers face an additional hardship: they are expected to confront this greater risk of infectious disease as they deal with reduced budgets and cutbacks. Caught between these conflicting goals, how is a manager to cope? One way, which may appear counterintuitive, is to integrate measurement as part of the daily cleaning process.
How can adding another step to the process help when staffs are being reduced? First, measurement enables custodians to determine if they are cleaning the right things in the right way. Second, it can provide evidence to concerned parents that the school is doing everything it can to keep kids safe.
Integrated cleaning and measurement (ICM) is an approach to cleaning that incorporates measurement as a cornerstone of the process. Education institutions want to be able to organize and equip staff to focus on results and then prove that what they are doing is effective.
The goal is to successfully connect measured cleaning results with improved student health and an improved bottom line. Maintenance managers want cleaning to be evaluated as much for health-based outcomes and operational effect as it is now for whether or not a school looks and smells clean.
As institutions measure and improve what they actually are doing — and publicize these successes — the benefits to student and teacher health and building operations will raise the level of respect that a district, school administration and parents have for the custodial department.
One of the basic challenges in measuring cleanliness is defining exactly what "clean" means. The maintenance industry has no real definition of "clean" — no standard against which to measure. That is about to change.
In June 2008, ISSA, the worldwide cleaning industry association, and the Cleaning Industry Research Institute (CIRI) announced a long-term partnership for the development of science-based cleaning standards that would generate industry data, training, measurement and certification programs. The first initiative this partnership will undertake is to pay for a series of independent research programs leading to the development of a "clean standard" for K-12 schools.
The subsequent goal of the project is to certify individuals and organizations with respect to their knowledge and use of methods that lead to measurable improvements in school cleanliness and hygiene.
The bottom line
Initially, incorporating measurement into a cleaning program can increase costs because of the purchase of measuring devices (see sidebar) and training. Is it worth it? Can you justify the increase? When the results help custodians focus on buildings' most critical cleaning issues and related health and operational outcomes, the answer clearly is yes.
For example, unsanitary restrooms represent a significant health hazard. That's because the restroom essentially is a bio-hazardous waste-transfer station — a primary source of infectious disease-causing organisms in a school as confirmed through scientific measurement. Studies also confirm that many bio-contaminants originating in the restroom ultimately make their way to other parts of a building, endangering the health of students and teachers. The reality is that a school cannot have a truly healthful building if its restrooms are not cleaned hygienically. And the only way to prove that a restroom has been cleaned effectively is through hygiene measurement.
Gerba recently conducted a controlled study to see what effect disease-causing organisms in classrooms had on student attendance. First, through measurement, he identified the most contaminated surfaces in the room, including desktops, water-fountain toggles, pencil sharpeners, keyboards, paper-towel dispensers and faucet handles. To test the effectiveness of cleaning, six elementary classrooms were divided into control and intervention groups. The intervention groups were cleaned daily with a quaternary ammonium wipe and tested for bacteria. The study found that children in the control classrooms were 2.32 times more likely to be absent because of illness than children in the intervention classrooms. They also were absent longer.
What effect would it have on a school district's average daily attendance funding if, through integrated cleaning and measurement, it could reduce student absenteeism by 50 percent? Or, consider the West Coast university that used its documented cleaning results to convince parents that their children should reside on campus, rather than in apartments, thereby increasing overall school housing revenues.
Measuring productivity is another aspect of an ICM program. Choosing the right tools to clean — for example, switching to a spray-and-vac from a conventional restroom cleaning method, or switching to backpack vacuums vs. uprights in classrooms — can affect productivity by several hundred percent — and, in many cases, improve cleaning.
Demonstrating the effect of an ICM system on bottom-line results could help an institution justify current or even bigger custodial budgets, rather than deal with cuts. This could provide custodians with the most effective cleaning tools available. Leading manufacturers are developing science-based cleaning systems designed to remove the maximum amount of bio-pollution quickly.
For example, spray-and-vac or no-touch cleaning systems have been proven to be 60 times more effective in reducing bacterial contamination on tile and grout surfaces than mops. Other innovative products include flat-surface cleaning systems and touch-point cleaning tools that are designed specifically for the critical touch points identified in the Gerba study.
Measurements will show supervisors, the school board, concerned parents and the community that you are using the very best in cleaning systems. But, most important, by giving custodians the tools they need to eliminate diseases, mold and fungus, institutions can be measurably cleaner, safer and more healthful.
Read the "New tools of the trade" sidebar for more information on cleaning effectiveness advances.
The 5 C's of MRSA:
- Frequent skin-to-skin Contact
- Compromised skin (i.e., cuts or abrasions)
- Contaminated items and surfaces
- Lack of Cleanliness
New tools of the trade
In the past, cleaning effectiveness was measured with our eyes and ears. Does it look clean? Does it smell clean? However, faced with growing health concerns related to invisible pathogens such as MRSA and norovirus, as well as airborne particulates, these simplistic methods no longer are sufficient.
Scientific measurement technologies exist that are simple enough for custodial staffs to use every day. The technologies can provide immediate feedback about cleaning products and processes. These include ATP meters, particle counters, infrared/moisture-detection systems and other measurement platforms that are becoming more available, portable and affordable.
Of these new technologies, one of the most promising for cleaning appears to be the ATP meter. ATP meters measure levels of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) — the energy molecule inside all living cells. ATP is found in bacteria, mold and fungus, as well as other matter that can provide a rich food source for these dangerous pathogens.
ATP measurement has been used in food processing for years, but until now, the cleaning industry lacked such precise and portable devices. By providing feedback in less than 30 seconds, ATP meters enable custodians to verify how clean surfaces are, and carry out continuous improvement programs to enhance overall performance.