I remember it like it was yesterday. October 17th, 1988. It was my first day working for G.H. Wood as an Assistant Product Manager for the G.H. Wood Chemical product line. 25 years have gone by so quickly.
Some things have not changed. Mr. Wood started his business in 1922 on the foundation that businesses needed to Clean for Health, and prevent costly sickness and absenteeism. Investing in cleaning could save companies money. The message today is not that different. We have different technologies, tools and chemicals but the principle that – clean, healthy buildings are a good return on investment – is still valid. Back in the 20s, 30s 40s, the spread of influenza in the workplace was a major concern. It caused severe labour shortages. An infected employee could quickly lead to the closing of several departments . Today, the list of organisms that can be spread in a facility or the community is a bit broader – influenza, Norovirus, MRSA, to name a few. What hasn’t changed is that the best ways to control and prevent their spread is to understand and apply the principles of cleaning, disinfection and hand hygiene.
So let’s look at the progress of the first point, cleaning, over the last 25 years. One of the biggest changes has been the evolution of the tools that are available to perform the cleaning task. Floor Cleaning Equipment is now safer, more ergonomic, and can clean more square feet per hour. Vacuums and carpet care equipment, with the use of better filtration systems and improved designs, are more successful at removing and capturing dust, germs and dirt particles. Flat mopping with microfiber pads has significantly reduced the weight of damp mopping and the physical exertion of this task . These newer, lightweight tools reduce the chances of repetitive strain or musculoskeletal injuries. Microfibre cloths pick up both dirt particles and germs instead of spreading them around.
Disinfection of surfaces has also significally changed over the years. For the most part, hospitals no longer carbolize rooms upon a patient’s departure. We don’t just spray germs away with a disinfectant spray, hoping somehow the solution will get through all the dirt to kill the germs! We are much more aware that some germs require specific technologies and contact times to ensure the kill rates promised. We have many more choices in disinfecting solutions. Gone (or rarely used) are phenolics, carbolic acids and pine based disinfectants. Today, disinfecting solutions have active ingredients that can be quats, hydrogen peroxide, sodium hypochlorite, alcohol and peracetic acid or sometimes a combination of different technologies. What hasn’t changed is that to disinfect most surfaces, a real person must apply the solution correctly, with the best process, the proper frequency and the best tool, before disinfection of a surface can be achieved. Users still need to understand the claims, read the labels and have a good understanding of the risks and costs involved. 25 years ago, the term Multi Resistant Organism wasn’t associated with cleaning. VRE, MRSA, Norovirus, C difficile were not part of our vocabulary. Today, they are terms we must be familiar with and understand their potential danger. What is exciting is that we are on the cusp of no touch disinfection technologies. These will enhance (not replace!) current disinfection processes and provide an assurance that environmental surfaces are free from germs.
Hand Hygiene has also evolved during the last 25 years. I remember when hand sanitizer did not yet exist on the market. Bar soap was common in many facilities and many used bulk fill type of soap dispensers. In larger buildings, gravity-fed hand soap systems were often installed with either a liquid or a foamer pump on the hand soap dispensers. These systems required frequent repairs, and were rarely cleaned. Thank goodness, we now understand the benefits of increasing hand hygiene events to help prevent the spread of illness. The widespread availability of hand sanitizer and good quality hand washing systems is helping to promote the benefits that frequency of their use can reduce the opportunity for germs to cross contaminate and for people to get sick. The growth of no touch dispensers in the washroom is also proof that the public is much more aware of how germs are transferred from one person to another.
One of the most important changes however, has been with the growth of green and sustainable technologies. 25 years ago, the impact that the cleaning industry had on the environment was not discussed. 15 years ago, when green technologies were first introduced, they were seen as having substandard performance. Today, thanks to 3rd party green certification programs , the quality and effectiveness of certified green products are guaranteed to be as good as products that are not considered green. The list of available products that are now certified green by a 3rd party company keeps growing. Today facilities can choose from many categories of products such as hand towels, toilet paper, cleaning chemicals, disinfectants, hand soap, garbage bags, equipment and microfibre. And more decision makers are aware that the how we clean is just as important as to what products we use to clean with, if the goal is to reduce the impact of the environment that the cleaning process can have.
Progress has been made to improve indoor air quality by using cleaning equipment with better filtration systems. Decision Makers are now choosing equipment with improved filtration rates, increasing their use of matting to capture dirt and particles at the door, and are choosing low or no scent cleaning chemicals to improve the overall air quality for their building occupants. Though great strides have been made in understanding that the air we breathe indoors has a great impact on our health, and that we spend 80% of our day indoors, we still have some way to go before the public disconnects scent and fragrance with cleanliness. Consumers are constantly bombarded with messages that they need a fragrance for an area to be accepted as clean. It will be a while before the general public is ready to accept that clean has no scent. The association of clean and scent is still very strong.
The introduction of Productivity Technologies has been another important change in the industry. 25 years ago, many facilities were manually cleaned. Today, it is easier to justify the use of mechanized technologies such as autoscrubbers, vacuums, polishers, burnishers, tools that can clean more square feet per hour. And more innovation is being done to continue to bring to market tools and equipment that are efficient, versatile, ergonomic and cost effective. Better tools with higher productivity have greatly improved the cleaning standards of most facilities. And these improved cleaning standards have positively impacted many different cost centers of a facility. Yet cleaning is still perceived as a cost and not as an investment. The focus has been on how much it costs to clean a facility and not on the returns that cleaning can bring to a bottom line. When budgets are tightened, cleaning is reduced, without any consideration of the long term effects of this decision. This is in part because it has been difficult to measure the benefits that cleaning can bring to the bottom line. As new tools and new science comes to market, the hope is more facilities, when evaluating their cleaning budget, will also take reduced absenteeism, improved productivity, energy savings, image enhancement and asset preservation into consideration. The early adopters of this philosophy will enjoy better returns than those facilities who continue to see cleaning merely as a cost.
25 years ago, if someone would have told me that I would spend my career in the cleaning industry, I would have been very disappointed. Today, I feel fortunate and proud to be a member of this vibrant, exciting industry and look forward to what the future has to offer. I wonder what the next 25 years will bring!