You Can Clean for Health

Once upon a time, schools were cleaned for appearance. “We didn’t worry that how we clean schools affects students and staff,” says Rex Morrison, president of Process Cleaning for Healthy Schools (PC4HS), a nonprofit consortium with a mission of “schools helping schools,” “as long as they appeared clean.” Then, in the 1980s, Sick Building Syndrome and Legionnaires Disease indicated that there was a direct link from illness to how schools are cleaned. Things started changing.

“In the 1990s we saw, and we still see, MRSA, e-coli and other illnesses that result from not addressing cleaning for the sake of health and removing germs and bacteria,” says Morrison. As a result, today’s school administrators are much more proactive about cleaning for health, not just appearance.

A little help, please

If you want to clean for health and do it well instead of winging it and hoping for the best, there’s a lot of help available. For example, cleaning for health is sometimes called Team Cleaning, a concept based on work simplification and redistribution. For more information, check out, the website for Concepts4, an Albany, N.Y.-based trainer and implementation resource of high-performance cleaning using team specialists.

Likewise, sometimes cleaning for health is called process cleaning. PC4HS, which streamlines cleaning processes through systematized methods and standardized products and equipment, offers information at its website,

Back to our story

In this story, we’re calling cleaning for health just that: cleaning for health. It requires a different mindset from traditional cleaning methods. “Because the stakes are high in cleaning,” says Allen Rathey, president of Boise, Idaho-based Healthy Facilities Institute (HFI), which provides information for creating and maintaining clean, healthy indoor environments, “we have to know what, when and how to clean, otherwise we’re simply polluting the environment. Cleaning has to be turned into the science that other industries use to gain desirable fringe benefits, such as the health of our students. It requires intelligent thought to create appropriate systems and processes.”

On the surface, and done well, cleaning for health is a three-part mission, notes Morrison. It includes cleaning at a reasonable cost to be good stewards of taxpayers’ dollars, cleaning for appearance (what’s visible) and cleaning for health (what’s invisible).

Below the surface, a lot goes into meeting that mission. As you do your research, you’ll see that the idea behind cleaning for health is to create a plan that includes task specialization, standardization, workloading, training, tools and products to remove germs.

Task specialization

With task specialization, staff are trained and assigned cleaning tasks in designated areas in designated days to a designated time period. For example, one person may do general cleaning, another may do vacuuming and yet another may sanitize restrooms. Applying a time and motion strategy to cleaning, notes Morrison, saves times and allows employees to redirect their labor to cleaning for health.

Task standardization

Standardization is doing the same task the same way every time to gain efficiency. “Cleaning for health programs that are succeeding,” Rathey observes, “are acting like well-oiled processes with well-defined tasks.” In addition, thanks to new equipment (see Tools and Products below), repetitive tasks do not have to be hard on the body.

Efficiency is important, notes Jim Harris, Sr., CEO of Concepts4, because the overall cleaning objective is to create work simplification and evenly distribute the work through the workforce. That means working with specifications. He cites zone operations as a poor type of cleaning program. In this system, custodians don’t think of flow, they think of applying their skills to that zone, and it’s difficult to systemize. In fact, the custodians drive the system by determining quality, frequency and methodology.

With cleaning for health, the system determines where you go, what you do and how long you’re going to be there. “The employee plays a big role here,” says Harris. “You want to get the custodian involved so he or she can contribute to improvement, morale and training methodology.”


Workloading is the amount of work assigned to each employee through his/her shift, allowing tasks to be evenly distributed. “Workloading programs know how long it takes to perform specific tasks,” says Rathey. “When workloading is done, you know how much time is required for every step and why the step is important for the removal of contaminants. This results in custodians who are productive, additional cleaning being completed and budgets being cut.”


“Training is the critical part,” Harris says. “We want to begin with training in systems development and end up with a high level of cleaning efficacy that’s measured and improved.” He indicates that a standard is being written that will, for the first time, allow staff to understand the results of their efforts in that it will allow measurement of germs before and after cleaning, with a range of acceptability.

Tools and products

When it comes to cleaning for health, the point it is to remove germs. “The students, teachers and staff bring them in,” says Morrison, “and we take them out.” To that end, cleaning for health uses technology in combination with correct custodial processes to remove germs. It has three components: average time, quality of work and quality of cleanliness. “It’s a repeatable process so every custodian is using the same amount of time and achieving the same quality of cleanliness and quality of work,” says Morrison.

“Today,” Morrison continues, “we have science to help us out with germ removal. We use hand-held readers that measure adenosine triphosphate (ATP).” ATP is the energy molecule found in organic material. “You touch a cotton swab to an area and then put it in the reader, which tells you the biofilm load (the food bacteria need) for the area you tested. Remove the food, and you remove the bacteria.” This creates accountability in ensuring the quality of cleanliness.

Morrison shares an example: If you choose to use a disinfectant to clean the area, the area must be precleaned, then a disinfectant applied and allowed to set for six to 15 minutes. It kills bacteria, but it also leaves a pesticide residue that needs to be removed. “Custodians do not have time for this procedure,” he says. “I would say the majority are applying disinfectant improperly, which is not killing germs, and leaving a residue behind, which ends up causing more harm.” Applying cleaning for health processes and following up with the hand-held ATP readers as needed corrects inefficient methods.

There are plenty of other tools used in cleaning for health programs. In fact, says Mark Bishop, vice president of Policy and Communications at Chicago-based Healthy Schools Campaign, a national not-for-profit organization that advocates for policies and practices that allow all students, teachers and staff to learn and work in healthy school environments, there are equipment options that allow for using less chemicals, products that help extend life of flooring, including carpet, and products with less VOCs for fewer asthma, respiratory and skin irritation issues. “We have to think about these things when making purchases for our cleaning programs,” he recommends. Here are some of those tools.

Backpack vacuums: Backpack vacuums are prominent in the custodial industry, as they are efficient and, from an ergonomic perspective, create fatigue much later than do push vacuums. According to Harris, a (not scientific) study comparing backpack vacuums to dust mops showed that the vacuums picked up three times as many dust particles as did the dust mops.

Spray and vacuum machines: These pressure-adjustable machines mean that restrooms aren’t cleaned by hand any more. “We use the machines and put the dignity back in the job so the custodian’s face isn’t two inches from the toilet while cleaning a toilet seat,” says Morrison. On low pressure, a sanitizer is applied. After the sanitizer has dwelled the required amount of time, the machine is turned to high pressure and water washes the sanitizer to the floor. Then the vacuum portion of the machine sucks up the water. The machines remove soil as opposed to redistributing it.

Auto scrubbers: Similar to spray and vacuum machines, using auto scrubbers to clean vinyl floors is healthier than using mops because they remove soil without putting dirty water on the floor.

Microfiber cloths: These handy cloths have split fibers that reach into cracks and crevices to remove bacteria and residue, as compared to cotton cloths, which smear instead of remove.

Steam vapor systems: Steam vapor systems disinfect areas that you can’t reach any other way. They kill bacteria, leaving only water behind.

Squeegees: Squeegees are used for thoroughly removing both water and cleaning agents.

Our story comes to an end with this reminder: “We don’t clean to have shiny floors and a clean-smelling environment,” says Bishop. “We keep a clean and healthy environment for the students, who are highly susceptible to disease transmission because they touch things and roll around on the floor and do things children do, and then they touch their faces.”

Morrison agrees, concluding: “No person, whether a student, but especially an employee such as a teacher or administrator, deserves a 30-year career in a germ- and dust-infested environment. It is our obligation as the front line of defense to make sure our schools are safe in terms of being clean and healthy.”