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Harvesting green cleaning employees

September 19, 2010
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In my 20 years in the professional cleaning industry, I have seen a major shift in how many cleaning people view and perform their jobs.

I have seen this among building service contractors (BSCs) cleaning all types of facilities, in-house cleaning professionals at schools and universities, and hotel housekeepers.

The shift is the greening of the cleaning professional.

In the past few years, not only have JanSan manufacturers and distributors redirected their efforts and energies into green cleaning, but cleaning workers have refocused their efforts as well, cleaning green to protect health, that of building occupants and the environment as well.

Generation green
What has been occurring in this process is nothing less than the harvesting of a whole new generation of green employees.

However, this new crop of green cleaning workers did not happen by accident.

Like most impetus for change in people’s behavior, this shift in how cleaning workers think about and perform their work is learned.

More and more cleaning workers can and are being taught not only to “think green” when performing their cleaning activities, but to make it their normal everyday way of carrying out their duties.

Green wake-up call
For many cleaning professionals, the “wake-up call” for better and safer cleaning methods dates back to the early 1970s when many building occupants of newer buildings were afflicted with what came to be known as “sick building syndrome.”

As more buildings were constructed to be airtight to help reduce energy costs, indoor air quality (IAQ) was hampered and people began having health-risking reactions to a whole range of materials used in these buildings — from the construction materials and carpeting to the cleaning products used to clean the facilities every evening.

Cleaning professionals, who up until this time had given little thought to the ingredients in the chemicals they used or the impact their vacuum cleaners, floor machines, or extractors had on a building’s health and IAQ, now gave them much closer scrutiny.

What they discovered is that many of the ingredients in cleaning chemicals — especially floor care products, such as traditional strippers, sealers and finishes — were very powerful and potentially harmful, especially if used in large quantities over long periods of time or if used incorrectly.

Today, we are more aware of the potentially harmful effects of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in conventional cleaners and disinfectants.

Green is important in floor care
Of all the cleaning tasks cleaning workers perform, floor care has probably contributed the most to a better understanding of the potentially negative impact of some conventional cleaning chemicals and equipment.

That is because many of the chemicals used in floor care include ingredients that:
  • Are known to be carcinogenic.
  • Contain zinc and other metal-type products that can negatively affect the health of humans, plants and animals.
  • Are high in VOCs even after dilution with water.
  • Contain ingredients that have been linked to birth defects, endocrine disruption, and cancer.
  • Have a total phosphorous concentration of more than 0.5 percent. Phosphorus can be very dangerous in air and when it comes in contact with skin it can cause severe burns. It is also poisonous; a 50 mg dose would be fatal.
  • Contain 2-butoxy ethanol, which is common in many conventional strippers and can be absorbed through the skin and damage the liver and kidneys.
  • Have a pH of 11.5 or higher. This is more than 10,000 times more alkaline than a pH value of 7, which is considered neutral.
Additionally, the dust released from the floor machines used to maintain floors can further negatively affect IAQ and pose a health risk for cleaning workers as well as for others.

Contributing to the creation of this new breed of green cleaning workers is the realization that green cleaning is a system, with each component of the system either strengthening or weakening the individual parts.

Turning green inside-out
Green cleaning was introduced to address these very tangible health concerns and environmental issues.

Implementing a green cleaning program can reduce exposure to chemical pollutants and lead to improvements in IAQ.

Environmentally responsible cleaning practices can also improve productivity for cleaning workers as well as building occupants.

A green cleaning program can have a significant affect on healthier living for all of us, as well as provide a more sustainable environment for future generations.

Cleaning workers who think green typically have a stronger passion, not only for their work, but also for green cleaning.

They know that they are not just shining floors and dusting desktops, but helping prevent the spread of illness, improve worker productivity, and even boost a company’s bottom line.

In order to harvest more green cleaning workers, it’s important to understand a few things about cleaning professionals:
  • Cleaning workers are most often good, solid people who want to not only do a good job but help others. Green cleaning’s health benefits fit perfectly into how cleaning professionals view themselves, their work and improves their professionalism.
  • Cleaning professionals want products that work. There is nothing more frustrating than to operate a computer or a piece of machinery that does not perform satisfactorily. The same holds true for cleaning products and equipment. Cleaning workers want products that not only clean well, but also help them perform their job more efficiently.
The first step in harvesting green cleaning workers is to make sure they understand the facts and why environmentally preferable cleaning products are now being used.

Like all of us, cleaning workers are reluctant to change their work habits unless they fully understand the need to do so.

Educating them on the risks conventional products pose usually is all that is required to convince them that change is necessary.

The next step is understanding what is and is not green.

Recent headlines about the “greenwashing” reaffirm that there is still a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding among cleaning professionals, and many in the industry, as to what is green.

Fortunately, there are recognized, third-party, independent certification organizations that determine and certify products that are environmentally preferable.

Cleaning workers should be made aware of these certifying organizations and seek out certified products for their cleaning tasks.

Along with this education and understanding, cleaning workers must also be taught how to use the new environmentally preferable cleaning products and how to incorporate a green cleaning program into floor care, for example.

Astute JanSan distributors can take the lead here, teaching both their clients and cleaning crews not only how to use the new green cleaning products and equipment, but also how to improve their cleaning skills at the same time.

These steps help cleaning workers better understand green from the inside-out.

Once the importance of green cleaning is understood, it becomes ingrained in cleaning workers, causing many to see green cleaning as simply “the right thing to do.”

Using environmentally preferable products and equipment is no longer just something that is required of them, but it becomes the way they want to conduct their work in order to protect their health and the health of those who use the facilities they clean.

Mike Sawchuk is vice president and general manager of Enviro-Solutions, a manufacturer of “green for health” cleaning chemicals. He may be reached at

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