Proper Mop Care and Other Floor-Cleaning Systems Amid COVID-19

For those around in the 1970s, we know that one of the most popular shows, and one of the most famous in television history, was The Carol Burnett Show. Each show opened and ended with Burnett portrayed as a cleaning lady with a mop and bucket nearby.

This image her show and became so legendary that in 1986, when the University of California, Los Angeles paid tribute to the star, her three daughters surprised her by coming on stage, all dressed as cleaning ladies, with mops and buckets in hand.

Thirty-five years later, with all that we have learned about mops, and especially now with COVID, I am wondering if Burnett would still be using mops and buckets to brand herself and her show. I suspect the cleaning lady's image would be fine, but the mops and buckets would have to go.

Mops and Nosocomial Infections

In 1971, a study was conducted in Canadian hospitals to determine if floor mopping could be one reason nosocomial (hospital-acquired) disease was so prevalent in that country. The researchers introduced the study with what is essentially their conclusion. They stated:

"Quantitative studies were undertaken to determine the source of contamination and to institute measures of control. It was found that mops, stored wet, supported bacterial growth to high levels and could not be adequately decontaminated by chemical disinfection."

It could be said that because this study is nearly 50 years old, the results may not apply today. However, in the professional cleaning industry, change comes slow. Mops and floor mopping are as common today as they were when this study was undertaken.

As to the use of mops and floor mopping specifically, the study concluded with the following observation: "It is our view that the daily painting of hospital floors with thick suspensions of organisms must be regarded as an unsatisfactory practice."

Interesting that they would refer to floor mopping as "painting."

The study reported that as floors were mopped in the hospital, even when using fresh mops, harmful organisms soon collected on the mop. As the mop became saturated with these pathogens, worsened by dipping mops into soiled cleaning solution, the contaminants were released from the mop and "painted" over the floor, just as an artist would apply color to a canvas.

At this point, some school administrators may be wondering what this all means to them. Let me answer those questions here.

What does this study have to do with schools? We do not have nosocomial infections in schools.

The study was focused on how pathogens might spread in a facility. The findings could apply to a hospital, a school, or an office building.

Even if there are pathogens on the floor, how often do people touch floors?

Far more often than we realize, both directly and indirectly. For example, one elementary school teacher told me, "young students roll around on the floor! In schools, they sit on the floor in the hallway waiting for class to start. We have 'circle time,' where everyone gathers on the rug for stories or class discussion. But then many children crawl on the floor [going] back to their seats." 

What does this have to do with the coronavirus?

A great deal. Earlier this year, a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in one hospital in Wuhan, China, treating coronavirus patients, "94 percent of swabs taken from the ICU floor … tested positive for coronavirus during the height of the epidemic." Follow-up studies have also concluded that the virus has been found on shoes, which indicates the virus can be found on floors and spread over floors as we walk over them.

Mop Care

What this tells us is that school administrators and custodial workers must become more cognizant of how they care for floor mops. And with COVID, we may need to even conclude that the era of floor mopping may have passed; floor-cleaning systems that do not require the use of mops may now be necessary.

In the meantime, custodial workers can help prevent the spread of infection with proper care of their mops, such as these recommendations:

Switch from string mops to flat mops.  String mops, by their very nature, absorb and protect pathogens. Flat mops, typically made of microfiber, are not as protective and are easier to clean.

Use many mops. In most hospitals, mop heads are changed after every use. Schools should follow similar procedures as they reopen. Do not wait until the mop has discolored before changing the mop head; that is far too late.

Washing flat mops.  If the mop head is machine washable, wash it in hot water using laundry detergent. Bleach should not be necessary and could ruin the microfiber fibers. Fabric softener should not be used. Wash separately from other items and allow to air dry.

Clean the pole.  Often overlooked, the mop pole collects pathogens too. It should be cleaned first, with a neutral detergent and a clean cloth, and then disinfected, a two-step process.  

Clean the bucket.  The mop bucket should be rinsed and cleaned before fresh cleaning solution is added. To clean the bucket, rinse with fresh water, then clean and disinfect, similar to how the pole is cleaned. If possible, have several mop buckets available, so each can air dry after cleaning. (Note: Always turn the bucket upside down when air drying.)

For floor-cleaning options that do not require the use of mops, here are two to consider:

Auto Vacs 

Achieving cleaning results similar to those of a traditional auto scrubber, auto vacs release fresh cleaning solution to floors and agitate the floor as the machine is walked over the floor. Solution and soil are vacuumed up in the process.

Pros. Inexpensive, rarely need servicing, require little training, clean up to 25,000 square feet per hour, can be used with a variety of chemicals, including EPA-registered disinfectants. Work well in congested areas, such as in a classroom or school kitchen.

Cons.  It may not be the right machine for cleaning exceptionally large open areas or very long hallways.

Automatic Scrubbers

A disinfectant-detergent can be used with automatic scrubbers to clean floors. No mops are necessary. Good for cleaning large floor areas and, similar to auto vacs, are proven effective at soil removal.

Pros. Effective at removing soils. Depending on the machine selected, they can clean large floor areas quickly.

Cons. Training is required including safety training. Tend to be costly and require regular maintenance. A large auto scrubber may work well in a cafeteria, but the same machine may be too large for smaller or congested floor areas, requiring the selecting of two different sized systems.

Floors are too often overlooked when it comes to fighting the spread of infection.  For many years, many hospital administrators did not even believe it was necessary to disinfect floors.  Now we know better. Floors, as well as the tools used to clean floors, deserve close attention when it comes to minimizing the spread of coronavirus.