To those not familiar with the chemicals and tools utilized by experts in the field of facility cleaning, there may be no discernible difference between pre- and post-COVID-19 protocols, perhaps with the exception of frequency.
Now, the global pandemic has increased interest in the activities of the companies that manufacture and supply cleaning products, as well as those that provide janitorial services, providing a unique opportunity to clarify the importance of this sector and its frontline workers.
According to facility cleaning and maintenance provider United Services Group, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic cleaning was not looked upon as an essential business by many, including the government and customers of building service contractors. At the time, the industry was generally divided into two groups: customers who clean their locations using existing in-house staff who may have other roles within the facility, and customers that contract out these responsibilities to professional cleaning companies. The prevailing mentality, United says, was that “if it looks clean, it must be clean.”
But as COVID-19 began to spread, landing on North American soil in early 2020, this belief was all but cast aside. Suddenly, every surface and touch point was a potential source of worry. While the shuttering of office buildings and commercial properties prevented cross-contamination and stunted the spread of the disease, as Canadian businesses prepare to reopen many companies may find themselves stuck in the same “wipe and shine” mindset.
A change in basic function
Unfortunately, that mindset may be detrimental, says John Appleton, vice president of Bee-Clean Canada and co-chair of its national pandemic management team. “The basic function of cleaning has changed. The question is no longer ‘Is it clean?’ The question is ‘Is it safe?’” he notes, adding that proper training and education on products and equipment is the first step toward a truly safe facility. “Ensuring the safety of building occupants requires that the appropriate chemistry is utilized in the approved manner. Chemistry that is approved by government agencies is approved based on a specific dilution and application process, and failure to follow those exact requirements exposes the cleaner and the building population to unnecessary risk.”
United goes further, saying that it isn’t always enough to provide one-time training and have safety data sheets on hand. “Any cleaning operation is a systemic approach, and there are three important factors that play a critical role in its success. These are the skills and competency of the operator, the right chemicals for the job at hand, and the right tools and equipment used,” the company notes. To drive these points home, United Cleaning Services, one of United Service Group’s banners, has a dedicated learning and development department that has created program content specific to the pandemic, aligned with federal, provincial, and Health Canada guidelines for COVID-19. Audits to ensure consistency at the national level and in all locations are undertaken, safeguarding against potential holes in the system.
Changing guidelines and recommendations are also keeping facility operators and the service providers they solicit on their toes. As one such provider, United proactively researches and adopts legislative requirements as they are rolled out by agencies. The company explains that as provinces are updating their guidelines on chemical compositions in sanitizers and disinfectants it has been making the required changes to its internal processes and notes that only products with a Drug Identification Number are used in its cleaning protocols.
Talking the talk
Terminology has a lot to do with mitigating risk as well. Jan Chappel, senior technical specialist with the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, says it is important to make the distinction between cleaning and disinfecting, as both have vastly different roles, especially when cleaning public spaces.
“Cleaning is literally soap and water. It removes dirt and grime,” she explains. If a surface is soiled, since the function of many disinfectants isn’t to remove dirt, the chemical being used may not be able to get to the surface and do its job. Chappel uses the health care sector as an example: If an area is bloody or has bodily fluids on it, the protocol is to first clean and then disinfect. In the time of COVID-19, and as more facilities begin to reopen, this logic can be applied to most any industry or facility.
Another big shift is the focus on touch points during the cleaning process. While always a concern when in any cleaning program, the pandemic has increased the emphasis on and importance of touch points. Now, “it’s not just making sure the window on the door is shiny, but that the handle is disinfected often,” Chappel says.
Emerging technologies and chemicals
Using cleaning chemicals that are approved by Health Canada to show effectiveness against SARS-CoV-2, the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19, should be priority number-one. But when dealing with untrained staff, or manufacturers who are eager to get their product to market quickly, problems can arise. United notes that some hand sanitizers have been recalled by Health Canada as they contain industrial-strength ethanol that has not been authorized for use in these products.
Another area of confusion, Appleton explains, is in the use of electrostatic sprayers, commonly called foggers, due in part to their rapid rise in popularity and the growth of pop-up cleaning companies. As he notes, “The application of the fogging solution is essential for the successful activation of the chemistry, and we have seen many examples where improper chemistry is employed and the application technique is not in accordance with requirements.” Randomly spraying around an enclosed space without proper controls and training is dangerous, he continues, so as with all other cleaning products and equipment, training on its proper, approved use is imperative. (United does use foggers in their cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfection process, due to their effectiveness, low risk factor, and biodegradable nature, and ensures proper training is always administered to its workers.)
One positive that has come out of the pandemic is the spotlight thrown on the country’s sanitation workers and the companies that employ them. “Cleaning as we know it has changed, as has our understanding of the importance of environments that are disinfected and safe,” Appleton says. “Cleaners, those oft-forgotten nighttime workers, are now frontline germ warriors who have one of the greatest roles in minimizing the spread of disease. The work they do has a direct impact on how many people contract viruses, which impacts the entire socioeconomic system. The changes have to be maintained, as we can’t afford not to.”