Many employers today recognize the importance of reducing the absenteeism rate of their employees.  We all see the efforts companies make to boost their employees’ performance and improve their wellness by offering incentives to join a gym, quit smoking or to lose weight.  These programs are terrific, but research has shown that one of the best ways to boost employee wellness and productivity, and thereby reduce absenteeism due to illness, is to improve the indoor environmental quality of the building.

The Integrated Benefits Institute, which represents major U.S. employers and business coalitions, says poor health costs the U.S. economy $576 billion a year, according to new research. Of that amount, 39 percent, or $227 billion is from “lost productivity” from employee absenteeism due to illness or what researchers called “presenteeism,” when employees report to work, but illness keeps them from performing at their best.

Multiple sources of research indicate that there is a direct connection between cleaning and the spread of illness.  According to the US EPA, “Americans, on average, spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, where the concentrations of some pollutants are often 2 to 5 times higher than typical outdoor concentrations.”

Viruses are here to stay. One only has to read the daily headlines to know our society is under attack from several new viral threats.  It gets your attention when 5 young children die and almost 1,000 hospitalizations occur in 46 states from Enterovirus D68 (EV-D68).  Enterovirus is believed to cause 10-15 million illnesses in the US alone, with infants, children, and adolescents being the most vulnerable. 

What we do know is that entroviruses are spread from person to person through contact with nasal secretions, saliva, stool from an infected person, or contact with surfaces contaminated with bodily secretions from an infected person.  There is no vaccine for Enterovirus so the best defense against this and other viruses is a strategic plan on minimizing its impact.

Preventing the Spread of Viruses.  Preventing the spread of viruses starts with robust hygienic practices.  For individuals this includes thorough hand washing and avoiding potentially contaminated surfaces. But the best practice is to remove these threats from our public facilities. To do that, we need to understand how clean, sanitize, and disinfect, without compounding the problem by introducing additional toxins into the same environment.

We must clean to remove dirt, which harbors bacteria, germs and viruses. But when cleaning with traditional or harsh chemicals, we contribute to one of the leading causes of indoor pollutants: cleaning compounds. That’s where green cleaning comes in with the dual benefit of reduced product pollutants while still delivering effective products and protocols.

Commercial building owners, managers and employers can take 5 easy steps to clean and improve the environmental profile of their building, thereby increasing worker productivity and lowering overall operating costs.

1.     Implement an Entryway System (Walk-Off Mats): One of the most effect ways of keeping a building clean is to stop dirt from being spread throughout the building and circulating in the ventilation system. Toxins are often tracked into a building on occupants’ shoes.  This can be greatly reduced by installing the proper matting at every building entry point.  This can also decrease the time and expense of daily cleaning while maintaining a higher level of cleanliness in-between daily cleaning times. This is your very first line of defense.

2.     Evaluate the Cleaning Equipment:  When you start removing dirt, you want to make sure that you are removing it effectively.  Are you picking it up or moving it around? And are you picking it all up? Insure that the power equipment used to clean the facility is operating properly and regularly maintained.  Inspect vacuums to make sure they are truly removing the dirt they pick-up and not recirculating it.  Install HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters and bags in the vacuum to insure that the particulates captured by the vacuum do not escape back into the built environment.

3.     Evaluate the Cleaning Products: Green cleaning recognizes that not all facilities should be cleaned the same way. There are many new products or processes that offer better alternatives to traditional cleaning. Many green cleaning products available today offer a safe environmental profile and often times cost less and even clean more effectively.

The more educated you are about your cleaning products, the safer our buildings will be.  For example, all disinfectants are registered as pesticides with the US EPA and there are risks associated with them. If you are cleaning a Daycare or Elementary School you will want to use a particulate type of disinfectant with a lower risk profile that does not include asthmagens, since children are negatively impacted by these ingredients.  According to the CDC, 10.5 million school days are missed in the US each year and 1 out of 11 children suffer with asthma.  Therefore, special attention should be paid to the chemical profile of any product used in these institutions.

Carefully evaluate your cleaning needs and select products accordingly.

4.     Train the Cleaning Staff:  Once products are selected for use, careful consideration must be given to what the cleaning and disinfection protocols will be.  Disinfection cannot occur unless and until the gross soils are removed from the surface to be disinfected.  Secondly, the product must be applied properly in order to kill the targeted viruses. 

Green cleaning best practices start with a written plan. Cleaning staff must be trained thoroughly in accordance with your written plan. Janitorial staffs in many facilities are not trained properly.  So really take the time to teach employees how to properly clean each part of a facility and how to effectively use the products they are given to clean with.  You will also need to issue them the appropriate personal protection equipment (PPE) and cleaning accessories, and train on proper use. Attention to training, including monitoring and re-training to raise cleaning effectiveness, will go a long way towards improving the overall cleanliness of the facility.

The written plan you develop and train your staff to will also depend on the type of facility you are cleaning.  For example, a Healthcare facility (Acute Care or Long Term Care) will use an entirely different set of processes and products than a school. A cleaning plan for a school will vary depending on what type of school you will be cleaning (i.e., Daycare, K-12, Higher Education will be cleaned differently). So be sure to customize the processes and protocols in your plan to meet the needs of your facility just as you did with selecting products.

5.    Promote Better Hygiene in the Washroom:  Last, but not least, incorporate personal hygiene into your overall “Wellness” program.  Providing higher quality tissue, towels, soap, etc. will encourage employees and building occupants to improve their own personal hygiene while in the building. This, and education about the importance of hand washing and other basic aspects of personal hygiene, is a vital part of improving facility cleanliness and preventing the spread of viruses.

These 5 steps are easy to implement. And they save money.  The more time spent improving the hygiene and performance of the building’s indoor environment, the greater the return in worker productivity.

Peter Henson, I.C.E., CPMR, CSBA, is a Manufacturers’ Representative and Green Cleaning expert headquartered in Wayne, PA.  At Henson Sales, he assists clients in creating clean and healthy interior environments through the specification, acquisition and use of commercial cleaning products.