Cleaning & Maintenance Management Online

Concerns About Hitchhikers

September 19, 2010

Normally, when we discuss cross contamination issues in the professional cleaning industry, the concern is that building occupants will touch potentially contaminated surfaces, such as countertops, doorknobs, ledges, railings and other areas, and then spread those contaminants to other surfaces or people, including themselves.

And, with public health concerns greater today than ever before, many facilities are paying far more attention to these high-touch areas, making sure that they are not only clean and sanitized, but disinfected as well.

However, with all this emphasis on protecting occupant health and stopping the spread of disease, it''s surprising that an area often overlooked is the largest surface area in most facilities: The floor.

Mark Warner, a Cleaning Industry Management Standard (CIMS) ISSA Certified Expert (ICE) and director of training and product manager for Enviro-Solutions Ltd., says that contaminants "hitchhike" on shoe bottoms, eventually ending up on floor surfaces.

Even so, is this really causing a health-related problem for building occupants?

After all, how often do building users actually touch the floor?

The answer may be much more often than we realize.

"It has been documented that the average person has about 50 incidental contacts with floor surfaces every day," says Warner. "These incidents occur whenever we place a briefcase or purse on the floor and later pick it up, or every time glasses, car keys, a pen or pencil, papers and other items fall to the floor and are picked up. If there are pathogens on the floor, it is likely they will be passed on to the hands of the person picking up these items or transferred onto a new surface when the contaminated items are placed there."

Warner says that even a freshly cleaned floor quickly becomes contaminated as soon as people begin walking on it.

Additionally, the problem of cross contamination as a result of a soiled, contaminated floor is of greatest concern in areas frequented by very young people because children are closer to the floor, more likely to touch the floor directly and inclined to put things in their mouths, putting them at greater risk.

Call For Disinfectants

Of course, one of the best ways to minimize cross contamination from floors is to clean them more frequently and with a more effective cleaner.

However, Warner believes facility managers should consider going a step further when the threat level of contamination increases, such as if the threat is in the general geographic area or in the actual facility, by using hospital-grade disinfectant cleaners.

The detergency level is determined by the threat level.

"The disinfectants selected should be those that can kill a broad range of contaminants as well as any specific pathogens that might be present," Warner says.

Warner adds that when selecting hospital-grade disinfectants, managers and cleaning professionals must evaluate and compare products'' microbial efficacy.

This information is typically found on the label of the product, and if it is a disinfectant registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it will list all of the pathogens it eliminates, such as influenza A, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and so on.

Also found will be its: Detergency or level of cleaning ability; kill times; and parts per million (PPM) — the higher the number, the more powerful the formula.

However, even though it may be stated on the label that the disinfectant kills certain germs and bacteria, that does not necessarily mean it will be effective in eradicating all of them at all times.

That is why users need to carefully follow the label instructions of pre-cleaning the surface, ensuring the required PPM in the solution, allowing adequate dwell time, etc.

From Buckets To Machines

In settings with larger floor areas, cleaning professionals should consider the use of automatic scrubbers, not only to help improve worker productivity, but also to keep floors cleaner and healthier, according to Michael Schaffer, president of Tornado Industries Inc.

Using an automatic scrubber eliminates the problem of disinfectants losing their effectiveness when dwelling in buckets of soiled solution.

And, adds Schaffer, "The machine adds agitation [to the floor cleaning process], which helps loosen and remove contaminants."

Schaffer also recommends cleaning professionals consider floor machines that use cylindrical brush technology, especially when cleaning tile and grout floors or other porous floors or floors in educational or medical facilities.

These machines use counter-rotating brushes instead of rotary pads.

The brushes allow the machine to reach deeper into the pores of the floor where contaminants may hide and remove them in the cleaning process.

Although Schaffer agrees with Warner that using disinfectants on floors can help stop the spread of contaminants, he says they can be used more sparingly when working with an automatic scrubber, especially if the machine incorporates cylindrical brush technology.

This is because "these machines do more of the ''leg work'' when cleaning floors, and less disinfectant and water will typically still produce healthy results and eliminate contaminants while having a reduced impact on the environment," notes Schaffer.

Floors, Contaminants And Cleaning

In 2003, Dr. Alan E. Luedtke published a research paper titled, "Floor Coverings, Dust and Airborne Contaminants."

He reported that floor surfaces become soiled and contaminated primarily as a result of foot traffic, but that airborne contaminants can also soil floors because they eventually settle on floor surfaces.

His studies place greater emphasis on the need for proper floor care and Luedtke reiterates the need to be even more vigilant with floor cleaning in facilities where children are present and when the threat level for a facility increases.

"Just like every other aspect of cleaning, our emphasis in floor care has shifted from just cleaning for appearance to a much greater focus on cleaning to protect human health," concludes Warner. "The threat [of contamination] may vary from facility to facility, but the cost of improper floor care can be very high — a price managers and cleaning professionals can avoid if floors are kept clean and disinfected."

Robert Kravitz is a former building service contractor, author of two books on the professional cleaning industry and a writer for the building and cleaning industries. He may be reached at