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Win the battle in "germ warfare”

September 19, 2010
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It seems like everyone these days is a “germaphobe”, and perhaps with good reason. From outbreaks of Norovirus on cruise ships and in hotels, to the shutdown of schools due to rampant influenza among students and teachers, germs seem to attack us at every turn. The subject of germs in our environment has become so prevalent that it has spawned numerous books on the subject — The Today Show even dedicated a series of reports to the topic in February.

As cleaning professionals, it’s important to know about germs and germ prevention and how your services, and the products you use, can help in the effort to keep tenants, employees and clients as healthy as possible.

While nothing beats good, old-fashioned hand-washing as a way to break that chain of germ transmission, proper attention to surface sanitation can also help to minimize the transfer of microorganisms that can occur via hand contact, and between contaminated surfaces and the people who touch them.

Identify the “hot zones”
Thirty-nine percent of office workers polled in a recent survey said they wanted their management to establish a policy requiring employees with contagious infections or diseases to stay home from work until they’re better. The fact is that people do come to work, even when they’re sick — a phenomenon known as “presenteeism”.

Desks, phones, elevator buttons, and door handles are just some of the commonly touched surfaces, or “hot spots” that can serve as a link in the transmission of germs.

Health care facilities need to be especially diligent to avoid the spread of germs. Refrigerator handles, vending machine buttons, coffee service equipment, and hard-surface furniture items like chairs and tables found in patient rooms, waiting rooms, or employee break rooms can harbor certain strains of E. coli, salmonella, and other bacteria for up to two hours.

The number and types of microorganisms present on hard surfaces are influenced by:

  • The number of people in the environment
  • The amount of activity performed in the space
  • The amount of moisture in the area (microorganisms are present in greater numbers in moist, organic environments, but some can also persist under dry conditions)
  • The presence of material capable of supporting microbial growth
  • The rate at which organisms suspended in the air are removed
  • The type of surface and orientation (vertical or horizontal)

Choose the right cleaning chemicals
Typically, the main criteria for selecting a hard surface cleaning agent are cost, safety, product-surface compatibility, and acceptance by cleaning staff. Some facilities choose to form cleaning products selection committees.

For example, a healthcare facility may include representatives from environmental services, chemical and radiation safety, infection control, purchasing, and campus safety on the committee.

Such a committee may find, for example, that some high-impact cleaning agents may be seen as too dangerous or toxic for general use and should be replaced with less toxic agents. This may particularly be the case if surface-sanitation cleaning efforts are conducted during times when the building/facility is occupied.

Protect yourself and others
Chemical hazard and toxicity ratings can typically be found on the materials safety data sheets (MSDS) for the cleaning product. Refer to manufacturers’ instructions and MSDS to determine the appropriate precautions, and whether or not personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves or respiratory protection, are needed during cleaning procedures.

It is recommended by Center for Disease Control (CDC) Guidelines to not use disinfectant fogging or large-surface cleaning methods that produce mists, aerosol, or disperse dust — especially when cleaning while the facility is occupied.

In addition to air quality issues related to aerosol cleaners, it’s important to remember that everything that becomes airborne will sooner or later settle on people and surfaces, where it may create a contamination or a slip-and-fall hazard.

Protect your tools
Part of your surface sanitation strategy should be to minimize contamination of the cleaning solution and cleaning tools. Bucket solutions become contaminated almost immediately during cleaning, and continued use of the solution transfers increasing numbers of microorganisms to each subsequent surface to be cleaned.

Another source of contamination in the cleaning process is the cleaning cloth, especially if left soaking in dirty cleaning solution. You may think you’re disinfecting the surface but, in fact, germs and bacteria are most commonly spread by using a contaminated rag.

Making sufficient fresh cleaning solution for daily cleaning, discarding any remaining solution, and drying out the container will help to minimize the degree of bacterial contamination. An additional potential solution to this problem can be found in disposable cleaning wipers. The main advantage of using disposable cleaning wipers is that they are designed for single use, eliminating problems associated with the reuse of dirty rags and with the storage of dirty rags in contaminated cleaning solutions.

Understanding equals success
Surface sanitation may be a routine task, but it should not be taken lightly. Understanding where germs live, how to apply and use the right cleaning chemicals and the most innovative cleaning/disinfecting systems to eradicate those germs will help to achieve a cleaner, healthier facility.


Gonzalo Checa is senior category manager for Kimberly-Clark Professional, Neenah, WI.
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