By Eileen Senn

Clean schools, relatively free of dust and germs, are vital for staff and student health. Unfortunately, many districts᾽ cleaning methods are frozen in time, not having changed in decades. Custodial staff must use outdated equipment such as cotton mops and cumbersome mop buckets; cleaning products that contain harsh chemicals that can cause immediate or long-term health harm in students and staff; and dust cloths, dust mops, brooms, and vacuum cleaners that release dust into the air, degrading air quality. This is bad for the health of custodians and all school occupants.

Local associations should advocate and negotiate not only for clean schools but also for modern equipment that makes cleaning more effective yet safer for custodial workers. First among these are microfiber mops, cloths, and dusters; backpack high efficiency particulate arrestor (HEPA) vacuum cleaners; and walk-off floor mats for entryways. 

Schools that adopt ergonomic, chemical-free, and dust-free cleaning methods reduce custodians’ risk for repetitive strain injuries to their backs, shoulders, arms and hands. They also help reduce high work-related asthma rates among custodians and chemical burns that represent 20 percent of reported injuries to custodial workers. Custodial staff should be involved in evaluating and selecting materials and products.

Walk-off floor mats keep dirt out

It is easier and less expensive to keep dirt out of a school than to remove it. Walk-off floor mats prevent dirt, mud, water, and debris from being tracked into the school building. There should be mats inside and outside every entryway. They should be as wide as the doorway, 15 feet long, and HEPA vacuumed daily. Also, sidewalks outside doorways should be swept daily. A regular cleaning and replacement schedule should be in place.

Microfiber cleans better

Microfiber used for cleaning cloths, mops and dusters is a synthetic fiber that is split 16 times thinner than a human hair. The small fibers can penetrate cracks and crevasses that cotton cloths or paper towels are not able to reach. The increased surface area of the fibers and their star shape enable them to absorb up to seven to eight times their weight in liquid. Microfiber mops are flat-surfaced and have easy to remove microfiber heads. They are far lighter than their cotton counterparts, helping reduce injuries from heavy, water-soaked cotton mops. Once pre-moistened, microfiber mop heads can often be used without any additional chemicals or water.

Microfibers have a static electric charge so they act like dust magnets. They hold dust much better than cotton mops; 95 percent versus 68 percent in a U.S. EPA case study. Microfiber is durable, reusable, and affordable. A microfiber mop head can be washed at least 500 times, compared to 55 for a conventional mop, so the microfiber mop has a comparatively low lifetime cost even if the initial cost is higher.

Microfiber products clean more effectively and with less effort than traditional methods. The University of California, Davis Medical Center compared the bacteria picked up by a cotton mop and by a microfiber mop. The cotton mop reduced bacteria on the floors by 30 percent, whereas the microfiber mop reduced bacteria by 99 percent. A microfiber mop used with detergent removed bacteria as effectively as a cotton mop used with a disinfectant.

Microfiber cloths and mops are available in different colors so that a color-coding system can be implemented for specific uses, preventing cross-contamination. For example, in bathrooms, pink cloths can be used for toilets and yellow cloths for sinks. Green cloths can be used for classroom cleaning.

HEPA vacuum cleaners don’t spew dust

HEPA vacuum cleaners are designed with a high efficiency filter on the exhaust air. HEPA vacuums do not put fine dust into the air like ordinary vacuums do. Backpack HEPA vacuums have been shown to be 50 to 80 percent faster to use than upright vacuums, are more maneuverable, lighter in weight, and last longer. Models with comfort straps and cushioned belts should be selected.

Local association action plan

Local associations should work with their UniServ field representatives to ensure that districts put safer, more modern cleaning equipment policies in place. Locals should try to negotiate the following items into their contracts:

• Enough custodians: One full-time custodian for every 15,000 square feet of school floor area is a good goal. If there are harder to clean classrooms such as art and science, the number of square feet must be reduced.

• No privatizing of custodians because that results in zero control over cleaning equipment, protocols, staffing levels, and more.

• Microfiber cleaning equipment, backpack HEPA vacuums, and walk-off mats.

• Written job descriptions for custodians.

• Written cleaning protocols describing what surfaces to clean with what equipment, using what procedures, and how often. 

• Formal training of custodial workers in the benefits and proper use of new equipment.

• Use of least-toxic cleaning products. No products brought in by staff or donated.

• No aerosol cans. Pump bottles used on stream setting, not spray, so there will be less airborne exposure to cleaning staff.

• Ventilation systems operating during cleaning. Heavy-duty cleaning such as floor stripping only when schools are not occupied. 

Eileen Senn holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from Duquesne University and a Master of Science in Occupational Health from Temple University. She is an industrial hygiene consultant with the New Jersey Work Environment Council, a frequent partner with NJEA on school health and safety concerns.

Proper laundering of microfiber essential

Microfiber can be laundered at least 500 times before losing its effectiveness but washing and drying must be done properly. A laundering program can include washing mops and cloths by hand, by machine, or by using a laundering service.

Fabric softener and self-softening detergents must not be used because their oils will clog up the fibers and make them less effective until the oils are washed out. Bleach must not be used. Microfiber must be washed and dried separately from other laundry so that it doesn’t attract dirt, hair, and lint from the other laundry. Microfiber dries very fast so it can be hung to dry or put through a short drying cycle.

For more information

Cleaning for Healthy Schools Toolkit

Free online toolkit sponsored by the Collaborative on Green Cleaning in Schools. 

Toxic chemicals not needed for cleaning, NJEA Reporter, February 2011, page 7.

Disinfectants can cause asthma,

California Dept. Health, May 2017

ESP Careers: Custodial and Maintenance Services, National Education Association

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