Pandemic Response: Protecting Custodial Workers

Custodial personnel work diligently to achieve and maintain clean and healthful indoor environments. Whether in schools or office buildings, their efforts help to reduce reservoirs of biological, chemical, and particulate pollutants associated with dust and soil deposits on surfaces and in carpeting from becoming sources that can affect the quality of the indoor air. They remove waste, clean and polish floors, and engage in a variety of chores that increases their physical risk, such as working with chemicals and performing heavy lifting.

cleaning hand rails on staircase 

Photo © Nitiphonphat

Yet, as custodial personnel work regularly to protect the built environment and prevent undue occupant exposures, we must recognize their need to also be adequately protected during a pandemic outbreak. And this protection can only come from their recognition of the risks and hazards associated with their work during a pandemic, and the need for them to be actively involved in the development of modified cleaning practices and behaviors that will help reduce infectious disease risks, not only for a building’s occupants, but especially for themselves. Their input is invaluable to ensuring that new and modified practices during the pandemic are feasible and efficient.

In that regard, the following are specific action items for custodial personnel to consider in protecting themselves, as they work to protect all occupants of the building for which they have responsibility to maintain.

1. Understand the infectious agent, how it’s transmitted, the seriousness of the disease it causes, and the symptoms that indicate infection.

2. Identify surfaces considered to be high contact touch points associated with hand contamination and risk of infection transmission. These typically include desktops, table tops, countertops, chair armrests, draw and cabinet pulls, appliance handles and doors (microwaves, refrigerators), copy machines, elevator buttons, key card devices, door handles, knobs, and breaker bars, all exterior vending machine surfaces, and water coolers and fountains.

3. Ensure the supply and proper use of basic, disposable personal protective equipment (PPE), to include gloves and face mask (N95). Disposable coveralls should also be available for use when cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, to especially include restrooms, which are considered high risk. Coveralls will minimize the transport of contamination from the workplace to home and family.

4. Facilitate the cleaning of high contact surfaces using an EPA-approved one-step cleaner/ disinfectant. The product should be sprayed on a disposable cloth or towel and then used to clean, changing the cloth frequently to avoid cross-contamination of surfaces. During a pandemic, the cleaning of high contact touch points at an increased frequency is much more important than frequent floor cleaning.

5. Ensure that occupants of the facility, whether teachers in classrooms, or administrators in offices, are supplied with hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. The use of those wipes will help them keep their own personal spaces and work surfaces clean, as necessary, and reduce the risk of contamination transmission. In schools, classrooms with hand sanitizer will encourage students to use it, as well as remember to wash hands too. Custodians can’t do it all, and occupants with their own offices have an inherent responsibility to help protect themselves.

6. Close off areas where high risk incidents have occurred, such as vomiting or bleeding, and report them to management for awareness and initiation of a previously developed hazard remediation protocol.

7. Ensure that cleaning equipment is maintained and cleaned properly to reduce the risk of spreading contamination.

8. Engage in frequent hand washing, especially when removing gloves and coveralls, and be mindful to not store or eat food in custodial rooms or closets.

9. Notify management immediately if symptoms of illness are noticed. Cleaning is a systematic, science-based process of managing unwanted matter, so human activities can take place in a healthy environment. And when targeted cleaning is implemented under threat of a pandemic, or in the throes of one, it results in a protective risk reduction for all those in office buildings, as well as teachers, students and staff in school environments. For schools in particular, recent studies have collectively indicated that enhanced hygiene in schools, with targeted cleaning of biological residual contamination related to frequent-contact points, resulted in reduced illnesses tied to bacterial contamination reservoirs, reduced sick building syndrome symptoms, and reduced absenteeism due to infectious illnesses.

cleaning crew with misters 

Photo © Prostock-studio

Protocols for such control practices should be developed with input from facility managers and all custodial personnel to ensure that the switch to enhanced hygiene efforts can be managed with existing custodial personnel, supplies, and equipment. The emphasis thus focuses on cleaning for health rather than appearance, whereby designated surfaces are prioritized for cleaning and disinfection, above others recognized as of lesser importance relative to disease transmission.

Lastly, in the event of a pending or existing pandemic, increased pressure will be brought upon custodial personnel, due to the heightened demands of enhanced hygiene practices and risk reduction. Facing changes in work behavior and schedules amidst the demands, custodians can be hit with an unexpected burden of mental stress. Supervisors need to be aware of and strive to preempt such conditions by quickly addressing custodial problems and concerns as soon as they arise, and ensuring that all custodians receive the support and appreciation they deserve as dedicated keepers of a healthy indoor environment.


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This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Spaces4Learning.