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A Clean School is a Healthy School

May 1, 2001
Training employees in cleaning for health and safety (CFHS) empowers them to help produce cleaner, more healthful facilities.

Training employees in cleaning for health and safety (CFHS) empowers them to help produce cleaner, healthier facilities at less cost, enhances the professionalism of a custodial department, raises morale and creates safer working conditions.

Many institutions already have discovered the power of this concept. For several years, major hospitals and healthcare providers have viewed cleaners as an “environmental services” staff. Now, schools have begun to use these programs with impressive results.

A CFHS program can reduce or eliminate potentially harmful products and processes, and lower absenteeism, illness and injury. Training staff as environmental managers elevates an employee's self-image and the value of the staff's work.

Changing Mindsets

Before embarking on a CFHS program, you may have to change the way you think about cleaning. In the book, Protecting the Built Environment: Cleaning for Health, author Michael A. Berry, states: “One of the greatest and most necessary challenges we face today is to get people to look differently at cleaning and value it. For this change to happen, we need to reshape the way the cleaning industry looks at itself and represents itself to the public.”

Berry suggests ways to bring about that change:

  • View custodians as managers of the building environment.

  • Educate the public and staff about how the custodial department benefits the indoor environment and which tools the department needs to accomplish CFHS objectives.

  • Teach only those procedures that meet established environmental guidelines for cleaning.

  • Demand the highest professional knowledge, behavior and performance from the custodial staff.

Training Trainers

Start training your supervisors in CFHS processes, so they can train your line staff. Seminars are available to teach about chemical and equipment use and how they might affect indoor air quality, ergonomics, hazard reduction, sick building syndrome, floor and carpet care, and other concerns. Seminars should highlight processes, not products.

Many successful CFHS programs embrace team cleaning. Team cleaning creates specialists or cleaning technicians to perform tasks in assembly-line fashion for higher work productivity, consistency and quality. Tasks are typically grouped into four distinct functions: Light-Duty Function (emptying trash, dusting, sanitizing desks, spot cleaning); Vacuum Function (vacuuming carpets and hard floors with high-filtration systems); Restroom Function (cleaning, sanitizing and restocking restrooms); and Utility Function (cleaning lobbies, spot-cleaning glass, mopping, disinfecting and scrubbing floors).

Dealing With Dust

Dust is implicated in many health complaints. A cleaning industry survey found that 41 percent of housekeeping complaints related to dusting. A CFHS program can address both problems.

Rather than trying to chase dust around a building, it is best to stop it at the door with matting, trap it in vacuums so it does not circulate into the room air, and remove it from surfaces rather than driving it airborne. Long mats that cover several steps trap the most soil.

Other products provide practical ways to remove dust:

  • Vacuum cleaners that channel air through multi-stage filtration in sealed vacuum bodies rather than open cloth-bag systems can hold more dust and reduce airborne particles.

  • High-filtration media for backpack vacuums offer near-HEPA efficiency without the large HEPA-filter replacement costs.

  • Residue-free anti-static disposable dusting sleeves that fit over wooly or feather duster heads remove dust rather than moving it around. The sleeves keep dusting tools at peak efficiency and appearance levels, and replace oil or solvent-based treatments.

Killing Germs

Workers who follow an established protocol to regularly disinfect areas where germs are transmitted — desktops, cafeteria tables, drinking fountains and restroom fixtures — can help protect the health of students, staff and visitors. In classrooms, for example, a worker may pre-spray all desks with a germicidal cleaner, then wait 10 minutes for maximum effect before wiping the desks in sequence.

Once a school establishes a CFHS program, faculty members often are willing to assist in disinfecting desks during the day. Custodial departments may provide each teacher a properly labeled disinfectant and instructions for proper use.

Chemical Control

Carefully selecting products and standardizing their usage can improve safety and lead to more consistent cleaning. Reducing the number of cleaning chemicals used saves money and simplifies training.

Are you using aerosols? Consider removing them. Ounce for ounce, aerosols often are more expensive than other cleaning solutions, and the harmful mists they emit may be inhaled by workers and building occupants.

Other steps:

  • Replace chlorinated scouring powders that, when wet, release chlorine gas into the air. Instead, use multipurpose, mildly abrasive cleaners.

  • Adopt less-acid, no-acid or “user-friendly” acid products for restroom bowl and fixture cleaning.

  • Adopt a portion-control system using premeasured packets or automatic mixing and dispensing units to eliminate mistaken measurements.


Healthier employees work longer, produce better results, and lower workers' compensation claims and other costs. These ergonomic strategies may enhance your employee's health:

  • Use rechargeable battery-operated sprayers to reduce the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome. Instead of squeezing a trigger repeatedly, workers push a button to disperse chemicals.

  • Backpack vacuums allow a variety of operating motions — the push-pull motion used with upright vacuums and a side-to-side movement with the backpack's aluminum wand — that help reduce fatigue in workers.

  • A taller mop bucket and ringer may help reduce back strain. Three-foot-high mop buckets require less bending than standard two-foot-high units.

A CFHS program can provide value to a school or university: healthier buildings, safer working conditions, lower costs, higher student and employee attendance, and better worker morale.

Perhaps the greatest value, however, is the enhanced self-esteem and status custodians attain when trained in a health-conscious regimen. As Berry concludes in his book, a CFHS program succeeds when all parties — especially custodians — know that “those who clean our built environments are among our most important environmental managers.”

Sidebar: CFHS programs in action

Several schools and universities have improved the environment and saved money with CFHS programs:

  • Syracuse, N.Y., schools documented gains in attendance of 11.17 percent — which yielded added state funding of $2,513,250 — the first year after deploying a team CFHS regimen. Syracuse attributes the improved health of students to reduction of dust. The schools use high-efficiency filter backpack vacuums, a system of disinfecting desks/surfaces and other cleaning measures.

  • Colorado State University, Fort Collins, saved more than $7,000 annually in projected HEPA filter-replacement costs by switching to a high-filtration media disc in its [backpack] vacuums. The filter media cost only 1/25 of what the proposed HEPA filters cost and yield an efficiency of 99.79 percent at 0.3 microns. CSU also switched to vacuuming hard or resilient floors, eliminating dust mopping and resulting airborne dust. Since starting the program, indoor air quality has improved dramatically, while respiratory complaints and related labor and materials costs have dropped.

  • In Fond du Lac, Wis., the school district has improved dust capture, IAQ and overall productivity by switching to an anti-static disposable sleeve that fits over existing duster heads. The fringed sleeve needs no VOC-laden treatments, and facilitates cleaning around student projects, cluttered desks and work tables. Since the system uses no static electricity, it also is safe to use around computers and other sensitive electronics.

  • The Northern Tioga County School District in Pennsylvania saved $19,883.25 annually in supply costs by deleting aerosols and hazardous products. Team-cleaning concepts helped the district improve the quality and frequency of its cleaning.

  • Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), Worcester, Mass., virtually eliminated repetitive-motion injuries after adopting rechargeable battery-operated sprayers, backpack vacuums and other measures. Absenteeism from job-related injuries dropped from two daily to less than one a month.

Shideler is founder and president/CEO of Pro-Team, Boise, Idaho.

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