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Your IAQ's worst enemy could be your cleaning staff

September 19, 2010
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Is your cleaning and maintenance staff your facility’s worst indoor air quality (IAQ) enemy?

Your custodians and maintenance technicians might very well be public enemy No. 1 if they aren’t properly trained in how to clean and maintain a building while avoiding the common practices that can foul the air everyone has to breathe in your facility.

As an in-house facility director or manager, simply ask yourself this: How well trained is your custodial and maintenance staff in preventing IAQ problems?

If you’re scratching your head and wondering, you’ll want to consider this two-part series that discusses common practices that can lead to IAQ problems and how to fix them.

Part one talks about how to fix or adjust 10 common cleaning practices that can cause IAQ problems.

Part two, coming in the March issue of CM/Cleaning & Maintenance Management® magazine, will discuss 10 everyday maintenance practices that can be adjusted to promote IAQ.

More common than you would think
Studies have linked the quality of a facility’s air to the performance of building occupants.

Poor IAQ has been linked to sub-par performance in the classroom and school absenteeism, and cases of “sick building syndrome” that send office workers home with headaches and respiratory problems are headline-grabbing and more common than most of us would like.

Good IAQ, studies suggest, has the opposite effect as it appears to promote attendance and better performance and lessens health concerns about asthma and allergy triggers that building occupants might have.

At the same time, good IAQ will have the bonus effect of improving the working conditions of your staff, increasing staff productivity, and lessening absenteeism.

Here are 10 common practices and how in-house cleaning staffs can adjust them to promote good IAQ.

Practice #1:
Dust control
How do you control dust? Does your cleaning staff simply move it around, and, subsequently, push it into the air?
  • Try wet wiping. Wet wiping allows the dust to cling to the cleaning cloth instead of merely moving it from one place to another or sending it up into the air. And invest in microfiber cloths. Microfiber cloths only have to be minimally moist due to the fact that their absorbent fibers collect large amounts of dust.
  • Do you prevent dust, dirt and debris from entering your buildings? You should. Walk-off mats that extend for at least five or six steps are great attracters of unwanted material. This simple practice can stop much of the dust and dirt in its tracks before it has a chance to enter a building. This particulate matter can aggravate asthma and allergies and serve as a breeding ground for mold.
Practice #2: Vacuuming
Are doormats vacuumed after high-traffic periods or at least on a regular basis, if not daily? Are collection bags regularly replaced?
  • Daily vacuuming and regular collection bag replacement before the bag is full not only helps prevent dirt from escaping into the air, but also increases the performance of your machines.
  • Consider selecting vacuums with HEPA filters. Vacuums with HEPA filters greatly reduce the spread of dust that often escapes from a vacuum with traditional filters.
Practice #3:
Air freshener use
Do you use air fresheners to mask unpleasant cleaning chemical odors? Do you routinely put products with scented fragrances in your restrooms simply because it has always been done to cover up foul smells?
  • First, clean air has no smell of any type. The use of restroom products or air fresheners with fragrances or special scents simply is covering up a natural odor or unpleasant chemical smell. All of these products, while well-meaning, can negatively affect IAQ. The fragrances added to these types of products are manmade chemicals containing Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). While they may mask an unpleasant odor, they release VOCs which are known respiratory irritants. At the same time, these fragrances and scents lure a person into a false sense of safety as they trick the body’s natural repulsion or warning system that a potentially dangerous odor is present.
  • Covering up odors really doesn’t solve the essential problem that exists. Why not isolate where the offending odor is coming from and fix the problem by eliminating the source of the odor?
  • Increasing ventilation is almost always a good idea. Exhaust fans should be checked regularly to see that they are working properly. Proper ventilation is also a good idea when cleaning chemicals are being used.
Practice #4:
Product overuse
Are you wasting money by using disinfectant, detergents and cleaning chemicals that may be unnecessary? For example, mopping up muddy footprints in your facility’s hallways does not require the use of a detergent or disinfectant. Plain water is all that is needed.
  • Use detergents and disinfectants only when necessary. Detergents break down fats and oils, not dirt. Disinfectants are designed to eliminate germs, not pick up dirt.
  • You can save money, too, by using cleaning chemicals according to manufacturer’s directions, or, better yet, with a dilution control system. Too much of a chemical or disinfectant is not always better. Also, pay attention to the dwell time of cleaning agents, which when followed, will give you good results and not encourage you to simply use more.
Practice #5:
Toilet cleaning
Does your cleaning and maintenance staff leave disinfectants and cleaning chemicals sitting in restroom urinals or toilets overnight? The fumes/odors given off by these disinfectants and cleaning chemicals are respiratory irritants and can linger in a restroom. These fumes/odors also can enter your HVAC system, spread and make their way to other parts of your building where they can affect the air quality of those rooms.
  • Toilets and urinals don’t get appreciatively cleaner if your staff allows cleaning chemicals to sit in them for long periods of time. The previously mentioned dwell time is the key and staff should be aware of the chemical manufacturer’s recommended dwell time that gets the job done right.
  • Solid toilet deodorant bars are another source of concern for IAQ as they give off VOCs.
  • Proper maintenance of restroom fixtures and fans is a must, helping to prevent leaks, odors and mold.
Practice #6:
Inadequate ventilation
What better way to promote good IAQ than to introduce fresh, clean air into your facility when you are cleaning and maintaining your facility with potentially irritating chemicals?
  • First, always follow Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) information regarding ventilation requirements for cleaning products. It never hurts to err on the side of increasing these minimums whenever possible.
  • For restroom cleaning, turn on exhaust fans and crack open the door to provide additional ventilation.
  • For extensive, deep cleaning such as floor stripping and finishing, the use of exhaust fans and the opening of doors and windows where possible is a must.
  • Do not rely on an MSDS that states low odor as an indication of product safety. Low is a relative term. While it may be low in comparison to similar products, it may still contain significant amounts of VOCs that can be especially irritating for young populations.
  • When cleaning, especially deep cleaning, take advantage of the power of your HVAC system to reduce/eliminate odors. During these periods, don’t shut your HVAC system at night to save money.
Practice #7:
Carpet cleaning
At some point, the carpets in your facility will need a deep cleaning, which usually means cleaning with a water extraction method. When wet, carpets can release VOCs from their fibers or padding, and the cleaning chemicals used in the water can also be sources of strong odors.
  • Increasing ventilation during carpet cleaning can do two things — hasten the drying process while also dispersing odors.
  • Thoroughly extracting water and cleaning solution from carpets is a must. It quickly gets your carpets ready for foot traffic, limits odors and helps prevent mold growth.
  • Consider alternative carpet cleaning systems that use little or no water such as encapsulation.
  • Reduce the frequency of deep cleaning by a regular schedule of carpet care that includes frequent vacuuming.
Practice #8:
Product selection
In addition to cost and performances, include IAQ in your selection process when it comes to buying and using cleaning chemicals, floor finishes and floor strippers.
  • Select products that do not contain fragrances and have a low VOC content.
  • If you have an older facility where IAQ might be more readily compromised, spending a little more on products that will promote good IAQ is money well spent.
Practice #9:
Sewer gas
If you’ve got sewer gas, you’ve got an IAQ problem.
  • Pour/run water down unused drains weekly or as needed to prevent sewer gas back up.
  • Consider using non-evaporative and biodegradable solutions that may be more efficient in blocking foul smells.
  • Promptly repair broken toilet seals, restroom traps and sink fixtures and pipes to keep foul odors out of your restrooms.
Practice #10:
Safety first
Do you send untrained workers out in the field to clean?
  • Workers should be properly equipped and know how to use the equipment and chemicals that are in their cleaning arsenal. Knowledge of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and general safety precautions is a must.
  • Retraining is equally important and a review of MSDS requirements for infrequent activities such as floor stripping and finishing is always a good idea.
  • Don’t leave safety to chance. Check up on your staff to ensure workers are following proper practices. A safe staff is always a more productive staff.

Phyllis Filoso is a veteran earth science teacher who developed chemical sensitivities as a result of renovations and mold in a school environment. She has since received IAQ certification from the International Indoor Air Quality Commission (IIAQC). Filoso is the founder of VP School Solutions, a company dedicated to providing information on best practices necessary to promote good IAQ, particularly in schools. She can be reached at

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