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Custodial Common Sense

First, Learn Correctly... Then Do What is Best for Your Organization

From hearing cries to “disinfect a smelly bathroom”, to being advised to use hot water to “kill germs” while washing a kitchen floor, to being accused of using a "slippery" floor finish, facility managers may feel as though they are caught up in a frustrating and unraveling world. Many times, salespeople compound problems when they recommend that a "new" product be added to a manager's chemical arsenal which is already stocked with too many different product brands of similar formulations—different brands for custodians doing the same functions or products that failed to work as needed just sitting on the shelf collecting dust.

Facility managers need to embrace what makes sense and what has proven to work best for their peers at other facilities. They should only engage vendors with a confirmed history of helping customers achieve dynamic results at radically less costs—vendors with formal staff training systems and technical support specialists who are readily available via the telephone or in a distance learning format. To gain and maintain optimum success, facility managers must be able to identify marketing and/or sales innuendos and misinformation by using the empowerment tools they garnered from quality learning sessions. A facility manager's allegiance must be to the facility, its custodial staff, facility users, and vendors that positively affect their custodial program. It may sound harsh, but it’s reality.

Noticeably among accomplished facility managers is how they take advantage of high-performance chemicals and proven staff development tools. Exercising patience and persistence, successful managers build custodial programs that achieve and sustain reductions in product consumption of up to 70% and up to a doubling of staff productivity—all while permanently trimming overall costs by as much as 50% or more. In addition to budget savings and environmental advancements, facility users benefit from improvements in aesthetics, sanitation, and safety. And, let us not forget the custodians as they exhibit an aura of pride and self-confidence.

Soil is something that exists where it is not wanted—e.g. jelly in a donut versus jelly on the floor collecting other soils to form visible spots. Custodians are technicians who move soil from where it is not wanted to where it is OK—down the drain. Nature gives us only two soils—acid and alkaline. So, only two detergents are needed in a cleaning arsenal—acid (low pH) and alkaline (high pH). "Soil binders" (grease, oil, animal fats, etc.) float in cold water after being emulsified by a detergent. The same soil binders will melt, spread, and reattach to the colder surface being cleaned when hot water cleaning solutions are used—an extra step of fresh cold water rinsing may be added to ensure a surface or fiber to dry free of residue.

Not all detergents are formulated to be mixed with cold water—always test a detergent on soil binders with ice in the washing solution. An added advantage of using cold water is the monetary and pollution benefit received from not having to burn fuel to heat water. There are many facilities that would have to leave small boilers running in warm months in order to provide hot water for custodial functions.

Germs are microorganisms that make things sick—a microorganism may make person "A" sick (therefore called a germ) but not person "B" (hence called a microorganism). Microorganisms are single cell living things that are only visible under a microscope and that nature uses for recycling. They don’t have stomachs in which to store food and need to live in soil because soil contains their food. Therefore, where there is soil, there will be microorganisms.

Here are two conflicting custodial theories for dealing with soil on a surface: 1.) Washing/mopping with a disinfectant-detergent solution to clean and kill germs... versus 2.) Washing all of the germ-infested soil from a surface using a cold water detergent solution. A hot water detergent solution may be used, but an added step of a cold water rinse will be required to ensure the lifting of soil binders that hold on to soil particles.

Theory #1 is troubling. One may think that they are removing soil and killing germs because they are using a disinfectant/detergent product with a container label or brochure that says laboratory tests have proven that the product killed, let's say, 99.99% of the germs when tested. But, laboratory tests are commonly done under controlled conditions in a Petri dish—a measured amount of disinfectant against a measured amount of soil containing germs. Who knows, maybe 100% of the germs in the Petri dish were killed but lawyers advised against making such a claim. Don't be afraid to challenge a manufacturer's "kill" claim by requesting they detail the steps followed in the laboratory testing of their product.

A building is not a Petri dish. It is irresponsible to ask a facility manager to take a leap of faith and trust that a disinfectant detergent solution will be the end-all for eradicating odors and “killing” 100% of the germs residing in various amounts of soil on a surface. Blind trust in an off-the-cuff sales statement or the millions of repeated advertisements about a product's germ-kill records have no place in the public health arena dealing with germ warfare. Using a disinfectant/detergent solution to remove soil from anything but a slightly-soiled, hard, and non-porous surface will result in "left behind" soil populated with surviving germs—especially germs that are resistant to the disinfectant chemical. i.e. Nosocomial infections contracted while in a hospital kill over 100,000 people each year in the United States. "Germ-Kill" claims based on controlled laboratory testing can be a deadly peril to public health.

A disinfectant/detergent manufacturer has no idea as to how much soil needs to be removed by an end user. So the EPA requires that a product's container label instruct that the diluted product needs to be applied to a "pre-cleaned" surface. "Left behind" soil will contain germs that are resistant to the disinfectant. Live germs propagate exponentially sometimes faster than seconds ticking on a clock—populating as super germs resistant to the product in which you have placed your trust. Without realizing it, you may be managing a super-germ farm stocked with nothing but disinfectant-resistant germs.

To minimize the risk of infection requires removing the host (soil) in which the germs reside. Changing to an even stronger disinfectant will only exacerbate matters to a more deadly level by leaving more highly-resistant germs to reproduce in the "left behind" soil. In germ warfare where disinfectants are employed, only resistant germs survive the chemical attack and therefore only resistant germs produce offspring that can be more deadly than ever! It's a vicious cycle that facility managers must comprehend in order to effectively lead their custodial staffs in the best interest of public health.

Even when a surface is washed properly prior to applying a disinfectant, the disinfectant leaves a residual after the solution dries. People touching a disinfected surface may become carriers of the residual and germs resistant to the disinfectant. Using disinfectants improperly can lead to serious infection-control problems. The safest approach is to only apply disinfectant solutions to surfaces that are washed and rinsed well after each use. e.g. Operating room or emergency room counter tops, tables, and other medical procedure surfaces. If a disinfectant-treated surface gets contaminated by the touch of a soiled human hand and is not washed and rinsed well (and possibly retreated) prior to the next person's touch, the next person's hand will become a carrier of disinfectant-resistant germs. If a repeatedly used surface is washed and rinsed with a regular detergent on an as-needed basis, germs contracted from the surface will have a much less chance of being of the highly-resistant strain.

Theory # 2 is inclined to common sense... "Throw the baby out with the bath water"—baby being germs and the bath water being "dirty" wash water. A surface washed free of soil is virtually free of germs. Facility managers who subscribe to the cleaning theory “If it’s Clean, it’s Sanitary®” don’t seem to have offensive odors, slippery floors, severe burnishing dust, filthy baseboards and grout, etc.

Bottom line: If you find yourself throwing money into a “black hole” of custodial/housekeeping problems, you will need to engage a vendor with a track record of helping facility managers succeed by using high-performance products, effective staff training, and good old fashioned common sense. An empowered custodial staff has learned what they need to know about chemistry, biology, and physics in a logical and common sense manner. When facts make sense, the job gets done better and for less cost... And, most importantly, with employee pride.

Thank you.

Gabe Zanche, Sr. - Co-Founder of Gabriel First Corp. Copyright © 2006 Gabriel First Corp.

Please feel free to contact the Gabriel team if you have any comments or questions on this material.