The pandemic has exposed a critical truth: cleaning and disinfecting greatly impacts everyone’s health and safety. This includes those who carry out the process and those who benefit from clean environments. Cleaning with care is crucial for protecting our employees, customers and business constituents.
The panic caused by COVID-19 resulted in the overuse of toxic cleaning chemicals and hygiene theater. These chemicals can cause lasting harm to everyone who comes in contact with them. Concurrently, the pandemic made us more compassionate. People made more of an effort to serve others, tip more, support local businesses and accept that services now require more time to execute. Today, consumers are more aware of the way businesses conduct themselves and care for those they employ and serve. Thus, businesses need to approach cleaning with both compassion and care.
An Uptick in Cleaning Chemical Use
The pandemic created record-breaking demand for disinfectants as people sought to reduce the spread of COVID-19 at home, work, and everywhere in between. In states like Washington, disinfectant sales soared by more than 1,300% in March 2020. The household cleaning brand Lysol had 10,000 cans sell out in less than two hours at one store that month. In November, Lysol was running its equipment around the clock to manufacture 700 to 800 cans per minute, but still could not meet demand. Over the course of 2020, the brand experienced a 70% growth in sales.
While the quest to disinfect everything and everywhere certainly brought cleaning brands to the forefront and boosted sales, the world’s new approach to cleaning isn’t good news for everyone. Excessive chemical use resulted in an increase in chemical poisonings. In the first three months of the pandemic, calls to U.S. poison centers related to cleaner and disinfectant exposures jumped 20%. Fear of COVID-19 resulted in overapplying harsh chemicals in extreme quantities. Overexposure and misuse (improper mixing, diluting or combining) of harsh cleaning chemicals result in severe skin and eye injuries, inhalation of toxic fumes and irreparable tissue damage.
A Shift in Brand Compassion
The pandemic has forced a shift in how businesses and brands approach compassion. In response to the global crisis, companies took an increased interest in corporate social responsibility (CSR) measures that put people first. Wireless giant AT&T opened Wi-Fi hotspots across the country to help students and workers access reliable internet connections as they transitioned to remote work. Other companies also took action to help their customers, including Alaska Airlines, which waived all fees through 2020. Zoom offered unlimited meetings for teachers.
These measures helped customers and also enabled organizations to maintain their reputations when consumers required more from the products and services they preferred. According to a May 2021 survey of global consumers, 73% of respondents said that brands need to do good for society and the planet. That same survey found that 64% of consumers prefer to buy from companies with a reputation for having a purpose, an increase from 54% in 2019.
So how does cleaning tie back to compassion? To show employees, customers and other stakeholders they care, companies cannot continue to practice the excessive cleaning measures that the pandemic has pushed upon us. Treating employees, customers and community members with compassion requires cleaning programs that prioritize “cleaning with care.” Quite simply, these are cleaning programs that put the health and safety of people first.
How to Clean with Care
First, a holistic approach to the entire cleaning program is required. We need to look beyond the cleaning checklist and the bottom line, and think about the health and environmental impact on our employees and customers. Building service contractors (BSC) and janitorial services offer audit programs for all types of facilities. They have augmented these programs as a result of the pandemic. Hence, offerings include “misting services” as well as “sanitation stations.” If you clean your own facilities, reputable programs and assessment tools from ISSA, the worldwide cleaning industry association, have been updated to address the primary transmission concerns of a specific facility type.
Whether you contract cleaning out or manage cleaning in-house, it will help your business if you take into consideration these approaches to cleaning with care:
- Adapt to a “clean with care” strategy.
Employees and customers appreciate organizations that prioritize their health and safety by reducing unnecessary exposure to harsh chemicals. The goal is to clean to the standard, without going overboard. This is not an easy task. The pandemic pressured facilities to clean more, and a misconception arose that applying more disinfectant would yield a safer space. This is not true and is actually detrimental to the goal of creating safe spaces.
Organizations should consult the information and guidelines available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These sources regularly update detailed cleaning protocols, highlighting key surfaces, applications and frequencies, and safety precautions for workers such as personal protective equipment. For example, in the past few months, several new CDC documents have emphasized “cleaning” frequency over “disinfecting” frequency. That is a positive change because cleaning staff can now use lower toxicity cleaners and reduce the use of higher toxicity disinfectants.
- Replace and reduce toxic chemicals.
One of the most crucial factors to consider when cleaning with care is the chemicals being applied daily. Many common cleaning chemicals have dangerous implications on a healthy environment, according to a comprehensive “Beyond the Label” report from Women’s Voices for the Earth. Quaternary ammonium compounds (Quats), commonly found in disinfecting wipes, sprays and other cleaners/disinfectants, can cause skin rashes, irritate lungs, contribute to asthma, and more. Bleach is corrosive, can irritate eyes, skin and lungs, and inhalation over prolonged periods is shown to be carcinogenic. Use of harsh chemicals in a commercial cleaning program also increases the potential for accidents tied to misuse.
When assessing the disinfecting needs of the facility, select a chemistry with the best efficacy (including efficacy against SARS-CoV-2) and the lowest EPA Toxicity Rating (category 4). One such chemistry that meets these two goals is hypochlorous acid. Hypochlorous acid (HOCl) is an alternative to toxic conventional chemicals, as it is non-irritating to eyes and skin and effective against a broad spectrum of pathogens, including SARS-CoV-2. Hypochlorous acid disinfectant can be generated with three simple and safe ingredients: water, salt and electricity. It is sold in bottled form and can be created on site with a generator to support sustainability initiatives and further reduce the risk of employees handling, diluting, mixing and disposing of harsh chemicals.
- Communicate your caring approach.
Once your facility has adapted a “cleaning with care” strategy and reduced the toxicity of the products and applications, it’s time to make employees, customers and stakeholders aware. Use simple, point-of-entry messaging and statements about the “healthy clean” of the facility. Work with cleaning solution providers on additional training and the proper application of low toxicity cleaning solutions. Illustrate the adapted cleaning strategy and the safer products throughout employee and customer communications. This communication plan illustrates the “care” in your cleaning program. It will also further ease the mind of building occupants and strengthen your brand’s reputation as a compassionate business.
Businesses have shown they are both careful and compassionate when it was needed most. Safe facilities are not solely “disinfected” facilities. Safe spaces are those that minimize our environmental exposure to pathogens and toxic chemicals. For more information about how PathoSans is helping businesses clean with care, contact me directly at Bill.Kohley@spray.com.
Dr. Kohley is President of PathoSans Technologies, a global leader in providing safer and sustainable cleaning solutions for a healthier world. Learn more at www.pathosans.com.