Services & Maintenance: Effective Green Cleaning

By Allen Rathey
Published in the January 2012 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Cleaning a facility involves the removal of unwanted matter, pollutants, and contaminants from the indoor environment. By definition, this activity should always be environmentally friendly, but often it isn’t. This is because some cleaning procedures actually add rather than remove pollutants, and this scenario is usually brought about by a combination of inappropriate processes and products. With some targeted changes, however, facility managers (fms) can move toward implementing a cleaning system that removes rather than adds pollutants.

A Focus On Process

Conceptually, the processes used to clean are more important than the products purchased. Preventing soil and other contamination from gathering on surfaces is ideal, but once soil or contamination does become present, effective removal is the goal.

Process development should also involve time and motion studies to determine the best way to clean to avoid waste and backtracking. By using a stopwatch and observing cleaning procedures in action, fms will discover what works fastest and easiest. And training reinforces and propagates best practices.

One option is to video record cleaning staff (with their consent) and review the footage as a team. This can be helpful for group training that emulates the best techniques.

Another approach is to measure outcomes using devices that detect ATP (adenosine triphosphate) levels on a surface. This indicates to fms which processes are most effective for cleaning those areas. This is because ATP devices measure the energy molecules that remain in living and once living matter. If lower ATP numbers are registered after cleaning, that means there is less organic matter remaining on the surface—and less potential for microbial growth. Fms should be able to find handheld devices that measure ATP for less than $1,000.

Another device used to evaluate cleaning processes is a particle counter. This can help fms to determine whether or not the vacuums used by cleaning staff are performing at HEPA containment levels. The user should measure the exhaust of a vacuum to see if it meets the 99.97% at .3 micron efficiency of HEPA. If it does not meet that standard, the vacuum may be adding excessive dust to the air.

To track the effectiveness of dust removal techniques, staff can place a clean, shallow box on a high shelf to assess airborne and settling dust levels over time. The less dust that gathers in the container over two weeks or other set interval, the better. Cleaning staff can then change processes and measure again to determine which method is better at reducing dust.

This process of combining cleaning with measurement is called Integrated Cleaning and Measurement (ICM), and it is one key way to identify green processes that perform well.

Importance Of Products

Honing in on effective cleaning processes is one major step to establishing a green, healthy cleaning system, but products certainly play an important part as well. Products that remove, rather than redistribute, unwanted matter are a key to that goal. Examples of removal tools include generous entryway matting, powerful vacuums, and dust capturing tools such as microfiber or even a damp cotton cloth applied systematically.

In seeking to improve the environmental and safety profile of chemicals used, fms can look for products bearing green label recognition (e.g., EPA’s DfE, Green Seal, Ecologo, UL). Standards and guidelines that can be helpful include:

  • International Executive Housekeepers Association (IEHA) Integrated Cleaning and Measurement (ICM) Program;
  • Green Seal GS-42 Green Cleaning Standard for Commercial and Institutional Cleaning Services;
  • LEED-EBOM (includes green cleaning guidelines and principles);
  • IEHA HPCP Program (validates green product performance); and
  • UMass Lowell’s Green Cleaning Lab (validates green product performance).

Chemical measuring and dilution control systems help limit worker exposure to chemical concentrates while enabling proper dilution for efficacy. Still, how products are used—and how consistently—is often more important than what those products are. This brings the focus back to processes, specifically the need to develop and adhere to standard operating procedures (SOPs).

SOPs should be incorporated in the overall facility operations and maintenance plan then put into writing and made accessible to staff. An SOP should be clear, simple, and customized to each facility type. This helps guide:

  • Cleaning procedures and frequency;
  • Chemical usage, handling, and tracking;
  • Equipment maintenance and usage procedures;
  • Communication policies and steps;
  • Employee training;
  • Work inspections; and
  • Reporting and recordkeeping.

The SOP should be made available to cleaning personnel, facility management (FM) staff, and occupants. SOPs standardize and simplify (but not oversimplify) cleaning and training procedures, and they help make important steps such as safe and proper dilution of chemicals easy to follow. This often means using visual elements (e.g., icons, step by step photos, color coded content) and translating into any other languages used by staff members.

SOPs help facilities track and govern the amount of chemicals being used and identify areas where levels could be eliminated or reduced. SOPs also designate how and when equipment such as automatic scrubbers, vacuums, and even dust mops will be serviced and maintained.

SOPs further help protect the indoor environment by specifying how, when, and under what conditions intensive tasks such as floor stripping or carpet extraction are performed to minimize harmful impacts, especially when chemically sensitive or allergic persons are in the building. SOPs govern where Material Safety Data Sheets are to be kept and designate who is responsible for keeping them current and available.

SOPs should enable better communication between all parties in a facility by identifying aids such as suggestion boxes; hotlines or two-way radios for questions, comments, and reporting spills, pest problems, or chemical or other sensitivity issues; notices of work needed or to be scheduled; and periodic customer and worker surveys.

Training Staff In Effective Practices

Training should be as usual a part of the facility staff’s routine as changing the toilet tissue is. Initial, refresher, and updated training activities are all important parts of maintaining successful green cleaning. In short, when workers aren’t cleaning they should be training. Fms can make this a regular occurrence and stick to a schedule to optimize the safety, effectiveness, and consistency of cleaning.

Some training suggestions, adapted with permission from Green Seal’s GS-42 cleaning services standard, focus on what instruction employees should receive upon hiring and beyond. Fms can make sure that, upon hiring, all cleaning personnel undergo initial training on SOPs, proper sequencing of cleaning steps, and proper use of personal protective equipment. This training may occur before personnel are assigned to a facility, or it may be conducted at the site, before beginning independent work.

Personnel should also receive standard safety training, which includes a focus on reducing and preventing ergonomic injuries and exposure to hazardous materials. It is important to provide site specific training such as job site instruction focusing on standards for the facility to which they will be assigned. This site specific training should cover facility specific cleaning instructions, tailored procedural training (e.g., servicing areas for vulnerable populations) based on the needs of the facility and occupants, and hazardous communication standards.

All employees should receive continuing training and/or education on an annual basis to maintain knowledge of correct procedures for safety, tools, techniques, and pertinent environmental standards. For new hires, training should be provided upon initial employment, followed by in-service training, continuing education, and/or professional development opportunities on an annual basis. Management/supervisors should also receive in-service training and/or education on an annual basis.

By standardizing processes and products in a well planned, implemented, and measured system, fms can enhance human, environmental, and fiscal health while still optimizing aesthetics. This is what cleaning—or green cleaning—is really all about for FM.

Rathey is president of the Healthy Facilities Institute, an organization in Boise, ID that strives to provide authoritative information for creating and maintaining clean, healthy indoor environments.