A Cleaner Future

June 1, 2003
School restrooms can get a fresher and healthier look with new technologies and better-trained custodial workers.

Over the years, school buildings have seen many changes — from the disappearance of the time-honored school bell, to the introduction of closed-circuit television (CCTV) and computers in the classroom. One area that hasn't progressed much is the school restroom. After all these years, restrooms generate more complaints than any other area of a school.

An unscientific survey in 1993 in USA Weekend of thousands of students found that 43 percent of students avoid school restrooms entirely. Los Angeles County lawmakers are contemplating legislation to mandate restroom inspections in public schools.

In a germ-conscious society anxious about exposure to disease-causing bacteria, restroom cleanliness plays a critical role in the perception of a school building's health. The public's awareness has been heightened by illness-related school closures, poor indoor air quality, sick-building syndrome and toxic mold. It's clear that filthy restrooms not only create a negative impression, but also can inhibit student learning. Any student who is avoiding the restroom all day probably isn't concentrating fully in class.

How did we get here?

When it comes to filthy schools, many are quick to blame the custodians. After all, aren't they the ones responsible for cleaning restrooms? But the problem is more complex than that.

The reality is that, historically, schools have not paid enough attention to cleaning, and the cleaning profession has been undervalued. As evidence, consider that the tools that most school custodians are forced to use — wipers, buckets and mopheads — have been around for most of the last century.

“I did some research and found that the mop bucket first appeared in the 1890s,” says John Beckemeyer, operations coordinator for the Oak Hills Local School District in Cincinnati. “One-hundred years later, we were still relying on mops and buckets to clean our restrooms and classrooms.”

The only way to truly disinfect a restroom is to completely remove the soils. But most mop buckets contain contaminated water that is smeared around by mops and wipers, never penetrating nooks and crannies. Only a small portion of soil ever is removed, and what is left is a breeding ground for disease- and odor-causing bacteria. Besides being ineffective for cleaning, these tools are painfully slow.

Another contributing factor is the financial pressure many institutions continually confront. An easy place to cut spending has been in the cleaning and maintenance areas. Consequently, smaller building maintenance and cleaning budgets have left cleaning staffs overextended and ill-equipped.

Many schools have squeezed every last penny out of equipment and supplies. At first glance, this approach may seem sensible; however, such cuts can backfire when they result in the ineffective use of their greatest investment — people. Saving a few dollars on equipment and supplies may cost dearly in terms of lost productivity and cleaning effectiveness.

How do we break free?

The restroom crisis is leading schools to a better understanding of the importance of cleanliness to student health and achievement. As a result, more institutions are making restroom hygiene a priority. Here are ways institutions can attack the problem:

  • Provide modern tools

    Over the last several years, significant advances in cleaning technologies and methodologies have made improved restroom sanitation feasible and practical. These new tools enable custodians to clean more thoroughly in much less time than traditional methods. Besides being more efficient and effective at cleaning, the multiuse nature of some of these innovations reduces equipment costs by replacing a variety of tools, such as cotton mops, buckets, wringers and sometimes even costly auto scrubbers. The labor and equipment savings often more than offset the cost of the new equipment.

  • Minimize touch

    A simple way to control the cleanliness of a restroom is to minimize contact with contaminated surfaces. As a result, a number of schools have installed low- or no-touch systems. Examples include automated faucets, toilets and urinals, as well as paper-towel dispensers. These devices also increase efficiency through controlled dispensing.

    Touchless cleaning systems enable custodians to sanitize a restroom in a fraction of the time of traditional approaches. Their aim is to remove soil completely while protecting the custodian from direct contact with contaminated surfaces.

  • Place a high value on training

    Another opportunity for improvement is structured custodial training. Most custodians are self-taught. Important procedures, such as effective restroom cleaning, often are left to custodians to figure out. That's why it's unusual for any two custodians to perform the same task in the same way and in the same amount of time. Too many schools have either never considered investing in custodial training or view it as a waste of money. As a result, most custodians never are exposed to the benefits of new methodologies.

  • Document standards

    Closely associated with training is establishing and documenting standards. The process requires some upfront work, but in most cases, the results justify the effort. Standards help ensure consistently higher-quality appearance levels and simplify the evaluation and management of associated resources and personnel.

  • Include professionals

    By involving cleaning professionals and facility managers in the design phase of facility construction and improvements, schools can avoid structures and fixtures that inhibit effective cleaning.

  • Involvement from the top

    School administrators and business managers can help set the tone to help overcome an institution's natural resistance to change. Considering the potential effect on the learning environment and public perception, it is well worth the effort.

The future of cleaning

Looking forward, what changes can we expect to see in restroom cleaning? First, traditional cotton fiber mops, buckets with dirty water and wipes finally will be eliminated. The low- or no-touch trend is here to stay; automated flushing, faucets and dispensers, as well as cleaning systems, will become standard.

Planners will design restrooms with cleaning in mind. For example, they will be built with heavy-duty material for lower maintenance and simplified cleaning. More fixtures will be mounted on walls instead of floors to facilitate cleaning, while removing problem collection points. Fixtures will be contoured more smoothly with fewer nooks and crannies that trap soil and germs. Open-air entrances will eliminate unnecessary contact with contaminated door handles. And in many cases, cleaning systems will be built into the facility structure.

The role of the school custodian will evolve. The custodian of the future will be perceived as an environmental health manager rather than someone who simply cleans up after others. Equipped with automated multipurpose cleaning assistants, they will undergo formal training and most likely be licensed or certified. They will be respected as knowledgeable workers and skilled tradesmen, higher paid but much more productive than their predecessors. All of these changes will make the school restroom a much safer place.

Morrison is vice president of marketing for Kaivac, Inc., a manufacturer of industrial cleaning equipment and chemicals based in Hamilton, Ohio.


Ways institutions can make restroom hygiene a priority:


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