Then and Now

Rex Morrison had his first day on the job at a school three decades ago.

“I was so excited to finally get a job with the county. I suited up in my janitor clothes. I showed up at the school. The custodian met me, handed me a set of keys, showed me the closet and said, ‘I don’t want any complaints.’”

This, Morrison found, was the state of school custodial programs all over the country. There was little to no training, and, as a result, little to no consistency from school to school, or even janitor to janitor. The cleaning process was reactionary and complaint-driven, rather than proactively addressing issues of a healthy facility.

Later, as a supervisor in Washoe County Public Schools in Reno, Nev., Morrison realized that the only way to get 450 custodians in 100 schools to clean to a measurable, repeatable standard was to standardize. He predicted that cleaning programs hemorrhage thousands, maybe hundred of thousands, of dollars in the details — wasted movements, minutes and seconds due to inefficient and ineffective cleaning practices.

After studying hundreds of public and private sector cleaning practices, he designed his own standardized system. In the first year alone, his Process Cleaning for Healthy Schools (PCHS) saved his school district tens of thousands of dollars, more than even he predicted.

In order to realize such phenomenal outcomes, Morrison first had to shift his focus from cleaning for appearance to cleaning for health.

Cleaning for Health
The mentality, “If it looks clean; it is clean” was once the cornerstone of every cleaning program in the country. In the 1980s, with a growing national awareness of microscopic health concerns, that naivety took a turn towards something more sinister. Morrison recalls the industry-wide change.

“There are these invisible things, and they are germs, chemical residues and airborne particles. We can’t see them, and they are everywhere. We have to reduce or eliminate them.” With public health scares every other week (i.e. H1N1, SARS, MRSA, severe asthma), school custodians got scared too. They changed their approach to deal with this new, invisible foe.

According to Morrison, this is when custodians began to lose their purpose as removers and became experts in chemical warfare. With that shift in mindset came liberal amounts of harsh chemicals, whose fumes circulating in the environment arguably do more to pollute than to clean.

“We’re removers. Students and other factors bring it in and we take it out,” says Morrison. “As an example, we shouldn’t worry about killing germs, we remove them and dispose them in another environment.”

Morrison’s program ensures that all high-touch surfaces, such as desktops, light switches and doorknobs, are sanitized daily using biodegradable cleaning products (or sometimes just water) that leave no harmful chemical residues or fumes (preferably not tested on animals). Workers apply cleaner to desktops and scrape with a squeegee into a microfiber pad. The germs may not die, but they are effectively removed from the environment and put down a drain.

Microfiber is made up of negatively charged polyester and polymide fibers 1/16 the size of a human hair. Able to hold up to eight times its weight in water, microfiber drastically reduces chemical and water use, plus, when used properly, captures and removes 99 percent of bacteria instead of 30 percent with a cotton alternative, according to a study of microfiber mop use at UC Davis.

The same removal mindset is used for restroom cleaning with spray-and-vac restroom systems that clean at a rate of one minute per fixture. The germs are washed off the surface, vacuumed up, and removed with no need for harsh chemicals.

The Filtration Workhorse
Removing harsh cleaning agents is huge in the endeavor for healthy schools, but cleaning chemicals are not the only pollutants that threaten indoor air quality (IAQ). People entering a building each carry their own combination of microscopic dander, pollen, mold and dust, then deposit those pollutants through the building. In the role of remover, school custodians must deal with dirt and contaminants on a microscopic level.

PCHS recommends a backpack style vacuum for mobility with a multi-stage filtration system. The different levels sift particulate matter down to smaller and smaller pieces. For a vacuum with four level filtration, the removal rate is 99.9 percent of all matter 1 micron or larger (a micron is about 1/70 the width of a human hair). For a vacuum with HEPA filtration, the rate is 99.97 percent of all matter 0.3 microns or larger.

Morrison has recorded cleaning 50 to 80 percent more square footage in the same time using backpack vacuums and a technique called loop vacuuming. Favoring the dominant side, the custodian moves up and down the rows of desks sweeping the wand like the windshield wiper of a car. According to Rex’s and PCHS’s meticulous timing and recordkeeping, this method saves a tremendous amount of time.

Even with the best tools, the true focus of PCHS is management of the worker, specifically enabling the worker to clean to a repeatable standard so quality control is possible.

Achieving Consistency

The problem with cleaning is that it’s deceptively complex. There are so many products, tools and methods it can be a logistical nightmare to get all the janitors in a school on the same page, let alone all the schools in the district. When Morrison goes into a school district to teach PCHS to the custodial crew, there is always an initial resistance to the ideas.

The enormity of it must be intimidating at first. A school that takes on PCHS discards all the comfortable tools, habits and standards for much more stringent requirements. For custodians who are used to little supervision, they are suddenly expected to follow a timed step-by-step process, where every tool, cleaning agent and movement is predetermined.

According to Morrison, in spite of the discomfort, the real freedom is in knowing that you’re cleaning to the highest standard of health and protecting the value of the facility. He has set up the workflow for PCHS as a stack of dominoes; one task sets up another in the same repeatable process every day. It’s actually easier for the workers.

At the end of the day each custodial cart is set up with a day’s worth of cleaning supplies for a specific job. It is impossible for workers to overuse cleaning supplies or contaminate classrooms with restroom tools because each cart only carries what the worker needs to do his or her specialty.

All of the tasks in a single function of cleaning (such as vacuuming) are done at once by the worker who specializes in that task, so there is no loss of time, motivation or concentration due to the stops and starts involved in changing tools.

“When you specialize, you’re able to turn your mind off and let your body respond to a repeatable process,” says Morrison. “That’s where the ease of cleaning comes in.”

Color-coded service maps are created for both daily and deep cleaning, and service assessment logs are used for documentation. Staff is provided with on-site guidance materials such as wearable “dog-tag” schedules outlining tasks and where each worker should be during each part of the shift.

Workers don’t need to stop to think what they should do next; Morrison has already timed each movement of each task down to the second. He can show workers how to do a task faster, not by moving faster or working any harder, just by standardizing.

Empowering Schools, Preserving Public Employees
At the heart of PCHS is Morrison’s passion for the public employee. When he showed up to work for his first day as a frontline janitor in the K-12 setting, Morrison was excited to don his uniform because he saw a county job with benefits as a position of trust and respect. He still places that same value on each custodian that he trains.

PCHS is now a non-profit, non-proprietary consortium of schools helping schools to implement a cost-effective, health-focused, standardized cleaning program, so that schools can resist privatization, if desired, and preserve that public employee.

“Every day a school district falls to privatization,” he says. “Private-sector employees who come in during the night are faceless, not hired by the school, but they have the keys to the children.”

There is no guarantee that a private employee is treated with respect or given a living wage and good benefits. For Morrison, there is a level of customer service that only in-house custodians can provide. They offer personal relationships with the teachers and students, as well as a vested interest in the wellbeing of the school.

PCHS is about empowering the school, preserving jobs and protecting the health of students and staff. It does not receive sponsorship or claim allegiance to any brand or system, but is free to change as better cleaning practices come around. It brings a message of hope to schools that fear losing jobs and personnel — any school, and district, 
can do it. 

Kelly Robinson is a freelance writer based in Boise, Idaho, and a PR specialist for ProTeam and the commercial cleaning industry.