COVID-19 is expected to push cleaning automation to the forefront as facilities prioritize health and safety more than ever. When offices and non-essential businesses eventually reopen, the anticipated frequency of cleaning equates to additional labour, and some industry professionals believe that cobotics, the collaboration between workers and machines or robots, will support staff in meeting the demands of the pandemic.
Companies that make automated cleaning and sanitizing products are already reporting increased demand because of the outbreak. San Diego-based Brain Corp, a software developer of autonomous cleaning robots, with clients in Canada, saw a 13.6 per cent jump in usage in March, compared to the same month last year.
Patty Olinger, executive director of the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC), a division of ISSA, says implementing automation will alleviate pressure from frontline workers, especially if tasks have not decreased and more cleaning is needed. In a recent series of webinars hosted by ISSA she, along with others in the cleaning industry, spoke about automation and the growing requirements for cleaning staff.
“Our cleaning and disinfection industry is an art. There is a science behind it; there are definite skills associated with different work practices and competencies,” she says. “It is now becoming not just a third shift activity, but a first shift activity—everyone is starting to become more educated about it.”
Expectations shift for cleaning staff
The industry has shifted quite rapidly from cleaning for appearance to cleaning for health, says Mark Warner, education manager at ISSA. Cleaning for health, which he calls the “new front line of defence,” now requires compliance with industry quality standards and effective training and certification of cleaning service workers, all to help stop the spread of infectious diseases.
“When it comes to the value of cleaning, it’s often a question of whether it will be a return on investment or just an expense,” he says. “The reality is there is an excellent return on investment. Proper cleaning procedures actually have the ability to reduce costs, protect people’s health and improve their productivity.”
At least 30 new diseases have emerged in the last 20 years, including SARS and Ebola, according to the World Health Organization.
“We really could have learned from these previous infectious diseases to be able to better deal with what’s happening to us now,” says Warner. “The bottom line is that people who don’t know how to clean and disinfect properly have the ability to actually spread disease over a greater area.”
Someone with the best disinfectant who doesn’t know how to use it will fail at proper disinfection; likewise, a person with advanced knowledge, but not the right disinfectant will also fail.
“It is a marriage of procedural knowledge and disinfectant chemistry that makes it all work,” he says. “Some people with great procedural knowledge know there are reservoirs of microorganisms on high touch points. What we don’t often think about are above-floor horizontal surfaces.”
These include desktops, counters and tables, all which have very high counts of infectious materials. The largest horizontal surface is the floor, or what Warner calls the “catch-all of all microorganisms.”
As the single largest reservoir of pathogenic microorganisms in a building, the floor is also a superhighway for these microorganisms that are transported on the soles of shoes, wheels and carts. From a purse to a pen dropped on the floor, these “secondary vehicles” help bring microorganisms to surfaces that are readily accessible to hands. This is also known as incidental floor contact, and according to Warner, the average person has more than 50 of these floor contacts in one day.
Disease-causing elements are not removed by making a space look clean. For this reason, he stresses how important it is to follow best practices for disinfection procedures: pre-clean a surface, apply disinfectants with the correct rating and allow for dwell time, recover wet, spent disinfection solution and rinse. Procedures must focus on floors, above-floor surfaces and touch points, and cleanliness and sanitation are most impacted by cleaning task frequencies.
“Right now, with COVID-19, extreme cleanliness is what we need and that requires increased frequencies,” says Warner. “How do we increase frequencies without worrying about the fact we’re being a part of spreading this disease?”
Automation as a support system
To get more help with the increasing need for frequent cleaning due to COVID-19, proponents of cleaning automation stress how cobotics will actually create more jobs rather than eliminate them.
“If frequency needs to increase, that means we need more people or devices, and automation delivers an ability to automate the menial repetitive tasks and allows cleaning staff to focus on more important disinfecting tasks,” according to Kass Dawson, head of strategy and marketing communications at Softbank Robotics, adding that automation was already happening before the pandemic began.
Higher and increased frequency allows for deeper cleaning and reduces risk of missing areas. Meanwhile, spot cleaning, often prevalent in the industry, is no longer acceptable. Cobotics allows for better documentation of cleaning tasks, including location, a timestamp, effectiveness and data that can be shared with companies to make them feel comfortable in their space.
For facilities interested in cobotics, he suggests that it be approached in a series of steps, rather than one single leap, trying to solve all the issues at once.
“In trying to implement automation, try to find people who are going to help you focus on that simple repetitive task first, vacuuming, for example. Once that is proven, you keep moving forward until you are able to address all the different tasks, step by step, your staff feels comfortable working alongside those cobotics and you can figure out the best way of dealing with workloading.”