How to prevent health risks from biological hazards while cleaning

Cleaning well protect people’s health by preventing germs from spreading and growing, by effectively removing the reservoirs they need to survive.

2020 has certainly started off dramatically, with unprecedented bushfires in Australia, and the coronavirus epidemic.

While industry and government are busy calculating the financial fallout of these disasters, the human and environmental toll is uncalculatable.

On a personal note, it was devastating watching images of burnt koalas, 70metre flames and smoke-filled cities, and worrying about friends and family members in the firing line.

It brought home to me why I am so passionate about sustainable cleaning practices – it’s because I understand how reliant we are on having a healthy environment and global economy. What happens in our atmosphere, air, forests and oceans, or over in other countries such as China, affects the health of us all.

So, this year I have decided to write a five-part masterclass series called Cleaning Well. Each article will focus on a key area of health and wellbeing, for building users and cleaners.

The first two articles focus on biological hazards, followed by indoor air quality, chemical hazards, and workplace injuries. I hope you find them valuable.

What are biological hazards?

Biological hazards, or biohazards, are organic substances that pose a risk to our health. In buildings we have bacteria and viruses (microbes), mould and fungi. This first article focuses on microbes.

On every surface there is a layer of organic matter, such as skin cells in dust, soil, food and body fluids, creating an environment (called a reservoir) for microbes to live in. Only a few of the billions of microbes living on public surfaces can make us sick. These are called pathogens, meaning a disease-causing organism, or more commonly referred to as “germs”.

In 2017, absenteeism cost the Australian economy an estimated $33 billion, with the flu responsible for an estimated $90.4 million of that.

Cleaning surfaces effectively to remove germs and their reservoirs is an important part of flu prevention because cold and flu viruses can live up to 24 hours on a surface.

The Journal of Hospital Infection recently reported the human coronaviruses can remain infectious on inanimate surfaces at room temperature for up to 9 days.1

Ever since Florence Nightingale observed the link between infections and contamination, a core aim of cleaning has been to keep us healthy. For decades now, the cleaning industry has bought and sold disinfectants, and more lately, colour-coded tools and hand sanitisers, in the fight against germs.

While buying disinfectants and sanitisers may offer a quick solution (pun intended), we can’t neglect the cleaning technique, or the cleaning technicians, because they are a vital part of cleaning well.

Protect your cleaners

The interesting thing about biological hazards, is cleaning can both remove and cause them. Cleaners have a far greater level of exposure to biological hazards than the average person in the building.

They are literally on the frontline, cleaning contaminated surfaces, breathing in atomised toilet mists and handling contaminated paper towel waste and rubbish. And they do this for several hours, night after night.

The three most important ways to protect your cleaner’s health are:

  • Hand hygiene: Educate cleaner to wash their hands (and hands inside gloves) after handling chemicals, cleaning washrooms, removing gloves, using the bathroom or smoking, and before eating. Alcohol gel can kill germs on clean hands, but shouldn’t take the place of hand washing to remove contamination.
  • Respiratory masks: Provide valved respiratory masks to prevent cleaners from inhaling aerosols and droplets released when they clean and flush toilets.
  • Isolation: Encourage cleaners to stay home when they are sick, or at least to work away from others if they are well enough but still infectious.

Protect building occupants five ways

When I develop cleaning operation manuals for cleaning companies through our HPC Solutions programs, I use our risk-based framework to help them to plan and implement safe, sustainable and hygienic cleaning practices. I’m sharing five hygienic cleaning strategies from this program here to get you started:

  1. Prioritise high touch points

Identify the surfaces that are frequently touched by multiple hands, and at risk of contaminating hands or food. These are called High Touch Points (HTPs). In a commercial setting, I recommend you select four or five of the most critical HTPs per room type, then teach cleaners to prioritise them by cleaning first with clean cloths.

  1. Use effective cleaning methods

Make sure your cleaning agents are freshly diluted and able to remove soil effectively from the surface. Unfortunately, there isn’t an Australian Standard for validating cleaning effectiveness. But you can test the capacity of your cleaning products and tools quite simply, by cleaning butter or coffee from a glass surface, or more scientifically, with UV fluoro markers or ATP2 testing devices.

No matter how effective cleaning cloths are when they’re new, they can’t clean when they’re dirty. Teach your cleaners how to fold them into four and clean with a clean side, and supply and carry multiple cloths to allow their frequent replacement.

If this is too logistically challenging for commercial facilities, teach your cleaners to wash cloths thoroughly in warm water and detergent after each room at a minimum, and have contingencies in place to increase cloth quotas in flu season.

If a disinfectant is required, ensure it is a TGO 104 approved Hospital Grade disinfectant3, and used correctly by cleaning first, then applying the disinfectant in line with the manufacturer’s instructions.

  1. Prevent cross-contamination

Colour-coding should prevent the same cloth used in a washroom, from being used in a kitchen. But what about the toilet seat to the basin? We advocate two colours for washrooms. The carrying system is also critical. It should separate each colour and prevent soiled cloths (and toilet brushes!) from contaminating clean cloths.

And the most contaminated objects of all? Cleaning bottles! Constantly touched by soiled hands and cloths but rarely, if ever, cleaned. Make this a daily task.

  1. Maintain cleaning supplies

A system to launder cleaning cloths and mops between shifts is a critical part of your hygienic cleaning program. Damp, dirty cloths left draped over janitor carts, or mops left in the bottom of mop buckets, create super germ reservoirs and are incredibly unhealthy.

If washing machines and dryers are not feasible, then supply a washing bucket and drying rack as a minimum or take cloths off site to launder. Disposable wipes offer a more hygienic solution but create waste and may not be capable of removing heavy soil loads.

  1. Measure cleaning performance

It is essential that you measure the performance of your cleaning program. There are several ways to do this, for example:

  1. Audit cleaners’ rooms and cleaners in action, to ensure your validated and risk-prevention cleaning practices (steps 1 – 4) are being carried out correctly.
  2. Use UV Fluoro marking on HTPs to check they have been cleaned
  3. Use ATP devices on HTPs to measure the cleanliness level.
  4. Ask your client to track rates of occupant absenteeism over a year, before and after implementing your cleaning hygiene program, and do the same for your own staff.

Remember that surface hygiene in a commercial facility is not trying to keep surfaces sterile. Cleaners can’t be there to wipe every surface, every time they’ve been touched.

Cleaning well protect people’s health by preventing germs from spreading and growing, by effectively removing the reservoirs they need to survive.

Bridget Gardner is director of High-Performance Cleaning Solutions.

1 Persistence of coronaviruses on inanimate surfaces and their inactivation with biocidal agents, G. Kamp et al, www.journalofhospitalinfection.com/article/S0195-6701(20)30046-3/fulltext
2 ATP: Adenosine Triphosphate is a protein molecule found in all living matter. ATP testing devices read the level of ATP on a surface.
3 TGO 104: Therapeutic Goods Order 104 for testing disinfectants and sterilants.

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