Know what you are standing on

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Robert Kravitz
Robert Kravitz

A few years back, Good Morning America aired a segment discussing the germs and bacteria that can build up on shoe bottoms. What they did was test the bottoms of eight different pairs of shoes – including the shoes of one of the program's hosts. What they found, to the embarrassment of the host, were 66 million organisms on the shoes.

This is actually a huge number of organisms. A toilet seat, in comparison, only has about 1,000 such organisms. The organisms identified included a variety of contaminants, pathogens, germs, and bacteria. Additionally, coliform, a type of bacteria that comes mostly from human and animal waste and that can cause serious health repercussions, was also detected in large amounts on the shoes.  

Red-faced, the host indicated she must have “stepped directly in something.” However, the reality is, according to researchers at the University of Arizona, invariably nine different species of bacteria are found on shoes worn regularly and these types of bacteria can cause a host of infections, some of which can be quite serious, especially in young children or elderly people.

But then the researchers went a step further. If 66 million organisms are on shoe bottoms, what happens when someone walks onto a tile or hard surface floor? More than 90% of the organisms, according to this study, were eventually transferred to the floors.

At this point things can get very serious. Children are especially vulnerable to germs and bacteria on floors because they often play directly on floors. And because they put their hands in their mouths an average of 80 times an hour, these germs and bacteria are transferred from the floor to the children's hands, and into their mouths — a classic example of cross contamination — which often results in illness.

But does that mean adults, including elderly adults, are safe? After all, how often do elderly adults play marbles on the floor? Well, it turns out contaminated floors can spread potentially harmful germs and bacteria in more ways than we realize.

Sick from standing 

Several years ago, a rather strange illness outbreak occurred at a tailgate part at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. It resulted in the hospitalization of six people and sickened an additional 29. Public health investigators looked for common denominators among all taken ill and found they had all been standing in line to purchase food. The first suspect was contaminated food. However, nothing was detected.

Were these people drinking from water fountains or purchasing soft drinks or even beer that might have been contaminated? Again, nothing found. Could they all have touched things like ledges or railings that had germs and bacteria on them, which transferred to their hands and then their eyes, noses, or mouths resulting in the spread of disease? Again nothing.

Eventually, all the epidemiologist could find in common with all those taken ill was the fact that they were standing in line for food. Because the tailgate party was held near a livestock pavilion, the epidemiologists soon figured out that some of the partiers had stepped on manure and other organisms, which then contaminated the surface they were standing on. Untied shoelaces may have trailed across the floor; later the people would have “tied their shoes. . . getting it (the organisms) on their hands.” Once again, cross contamination begins its health-risking route.

Keeping floors hygienically clean and healthy

Effective cleaning is the best way to keep floors hygienically clean and in so doing, helps to stop the spread of germs and bacteria that can cause illness.  So, to begin our discussion of how to do this, first, let's rule out the things we don't need to use:

Brooms and dust mops: The big problem with these cleaning tools is that they cause a lot of dust to be released into the air.  This dust can negatively impact the cleaning worker as well as older people inhaling the airborne dust. Use backpack vacuum cleaners with high filtration systems instead.

Disinfectants: Unless your long-term care facility is legally required to use a disinfectant on the floors – or it is part of your floor care plan – we can usually avoid using these very powerful and often costly chemicals.

Mops and mop buckets: Remember when you watched your mom spread the icing on a homemade cake? Well, as mops get soiled, they are spreading germs and bacteria on floors, almost the same way.  Avoid mopping floors except in “quick clean” situations.

In place of traditional tools, our best bet in keeping floors hygienically clean is to use either a traditional automatic scrubber or what is called an “autovac” floor cleaning system.  While the equipment performs essentially the same cleaning task, they are much different machines.

An automatic scrubber is typically a larger and invariably costly machine that applies cleaning solution to floors, scrubs the floors, and then vacuums up the solution and contaminants all in one pass. Studies at the University of Massachusetts found that automatic scrubbers could remove up to 98 percent of the test soiling on a floor.

An autovac is a smaller machine and far less costly than a typical floor machine. It applies a cleaning solution as it is walked over the floor and a pad behind the machine loosens soils. These floor soils and contaminants, along with the moisture, are then vacuumed up all in one pass.

If your facility has very large floor areas, a traditional automatic scrubber, while costly, will be the best way to keep floors clean and healthy and reduce cleaning times. The autovac system is perfect for more large to average sized facilities and floor areas, typically found in a long-term care location, and the cost difference between the two systems, as indicated, is quite significant.

Whichever system you select, you now have a pretty good idea of how important it is to keep floors in your long-term care facility hygienically clean and healthy. You also are more aware of what cleaning tools and chemicals you should try and avoid if at all possible. The bottom line: Don't forget the floors. A clean and healthy floor is the foundation for a clean and healthy long-term care facility.

Robert Kravitz is a frequent writer for the professional cleaning and building industries.

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