Attacking the cleaning cloth culprit
A study was conducted a few months back of the comments people make on Yelp and other social media sites regarding cleaning and maintenance issues. These comments were very often about restaurants or retail stores, but a wide range of facilities were mentioned. One comment reported that really stood out to many in the professional cleaning industry was the following:
“[The cleaning workers] use the same mops and wipes (cleaning cloths) all over the building. They use the same ‘rag' used to clean toilets as was used on counters, sinks – including the faucets – and other fixtures.”
This comment was posted in reference to a fitness center in Chicago. However, truth be told, the comment could apply to cleaning workers in all types of facilities, including long-term care facilities.
Many buildings have cut back on cleaning, so those cleaning workers that remain are being asked to do more in less time. The result is that sometimes, usually to save time, workers may very well use the same cloth used to clean toilets to wipe clean – if that's what you can call it – other surfaces, even high-touch surfaces such as faucets.
But here is the problem, and this is especially important in long-term facilities inhabited by people with reduced immunities to disease. As they are used, the cleaning cloths collect germs, bacteria, and other microorganisms. When used to clean multiple surfaces, they can spread those germs. View a cleaning cloth as a sponge. The sponge can collect only so much moisture until it is saturated. When it is used to wipe a surface, the moisture along with whatever contaminants have been collected are then spread to other surfaces and not collected. In other words, because it is saturated, it can no longer remove germs and bacteria but deposits them on other surfaces.
While this may be news to some cleaning professionals and long-term care administrators, studies dating back to 1971 have found it to be true. An abstract of a 45-year-old study, conducted in a hospital and published by the National Institutes of Health, reads as follows:
Following the demonstration of massive spread of bacterial contamination throughout the hospital by the wet-mopping techniques in use, quantitative studies were undertaken to determine the source of contamination and to institute measures of control. It was found that mops stored wet supported bacterial growth to very high levels and could not be adequately decontaminated by chemical disinfection. Laundering and adequate drying provided effective decontamination, but build-up of bacterial counts occurred if mops were not changed daily or if disinfectant was omitted from the wash-water.1
Another more recent study, this one reported in 2004 in the Journal of Hospital Infection, found that in situations where the cleaning procedure fails to thoroughly eliminate contamination from one surface and then the same cloth is used to wipe another surface, “the contamination is transferred to that [new] surface.”2
What You Can Do
Before proceeding to the practices long-term care administrators can put in place to solve this health-related problem, we should mention there have been other studies conducted on this issue that have come to similar conclusions. We should also mention that the two key cleaning culprits in these studies are the cleaning cloth and the floor mop. With that in mind, here are some practices cleaning workers can adopt to minimize, and even eliminate, the problem of spreading germs while cleaning:
- Use color-coded, microfiber cleaning cloths. Microfiber is more effective at removing contaminants, and cleaning with microfiber cloths often requires less chemical. Cleaning workers can use the color coding to help separate their cleaning tasks and keep from transferring contamination across surfaces. They use red cloths, for instance, to clean restroom fixtures, blue cloths for counters, and so forth.
- Do not use cleaning cloths used in one restroom or food service area to clean another; between areas, change cleaning cloths. Or switch to a special microfiber “smart towel” that can be folded into new quadrants or squares so that as many as eight fresh and clean quadrants can be used for cleaning different surfaces.
- For more detailed surface cleaning, use a flat-surface cleaning tool that combines a microfiber cloth, window squeegee, and chemical injection system. One such system was tested by a NELAP-accredited laboratory (National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program) and found to remove more than 99.9 percent of targeted bacteria using just plain water.
- Stop using mops and traditional buckets. Trolley buckets, often referred to as “buckets of the future,” dispense fresh, uncontaminated cleaning solution directly to the floor. Use brushes as necessary for agitation to release soils. Then squeegee moisture and contaminants into floor drains or vacuum them up with a wet/dry vacuum system placed on the bucket.
The key thing long-term care facility administrators and cleaning professionals should recognize is that many of the traditional ways of cleaning are performed out of habit, not for health. This practice is no longer acceptable at a time when seasonal illnesses such as the cold and flu as well as public outbreaks of disease are on everyone's mind. Updating your cleaning practices, methods, and systems is a change for the better for the people working and living in your facility.
Matt Morrison is communications manager for Kaivac, developers of the No-Touch Cleaning® and OmniFlex ™ Cleaning systems. He can be reached via his company website at www.kaivac.com
1 Westwood, J. C., Mitchell, M. A., Legacé, S. “Hospital Sanitation: The Massive Bacterial Contamination of the Wet Mop.” Applied Microbiology, 21, no. 4 (1971): 693-7.
2 Exner, M., Vacata, V., Hornei, B., Dietlein, E., Gebel, J. “Household Cleaning and Surface Disinfection: New Insights and Strategies.” Journal of Hospital Infection, 56, Supp. 2 (2004): 70-75.