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What FMs need to know to keep occupants safe during flu season
How to fight pathogens this flu season with minimal environmental impact

by Stephen Ashkin — October 2016 — We recognize that facility managers have a lot on their plates, but issues such as cleaning and disinfecting should be addressed even if occupants aren’t complaining about no known health outbreaks or the cost of cleaning being over budget.  This is especially true as we enter cold and flu season, which affects occupant absenteeism and performance.

This article is designed to make it easy for FMs to discuss the latest issues with janitorial services providers and/or janitorial products distributors to minimize health risks and to do so with the most modern environmentally preferable cleaning products.

Some of the situations frequently encountered by FMs:

  • High-touch surfaces.
    These surfaces can quickly become a source of transmission amplifying the risk to other building occupants because numerous occupants will touch the surface.  These surfaces include elevator buttons, escalator hand rails, light switches, restroom faucets and toilet flush-valves, paper hand towel dispensers, door handles, control consoles for shared printers and other electronic devices, shared workspaces, ATM terminals, hospital bed rails, and more.
  • Vulnerable occupants.
    Due to the vulnerability of certain people, a higher level of effort should be made to keep these occupants safe.  These vulnerable occupants include those with existing health conditions or compromised immune systems such as cancer patients some of whom continue working while undergoing treatment, young children in day care centers, patients in our hospitals, and those living in our long term care centers.
  • Known outbreak or during flu season.
    Using disinfectants on high-touch and other surfaces during a known outbreak is highly recommended (CDC offers good information to help identify specific outbreaks and steps to take).  In addition, FMs should consider the use of disinfectants targeting high-touch surfaces as a preventative measure during flu season to reduce risk to occupants.

Why Disinfectants Are Important

Cleaning will remove pathogens such as bacteria and viruses from a surface, which is a good step in protecting public health.  But for many situations, simply removing the pathogens is not enough and the use of disinfectants is recommended to increase the margin of safety.  This is because cleaning is capable of removing the majority, but typically not all of the pathogens from a surface.  Whereas a disinfectant will kill the pathogens.

This is important because many pathogens multiply quickly resulting in them once again placing occupants at risk soon after cleaning.  For example, under the right conditions bacteria double their number every 10 to 30 minutes.  Starting with just one bacterium on a surface that splits every 20 minutes, we would have over two million bacteria in seven hours

Importance Of Selecting The Right Disinfectant

Cleaning service providers and janitorial products distributors have lots of disinfectant options available for use in your building.  While it is against federal law to use disinfectants without following its directions, in many cases, and perhaps even a majority of the time, this is not happening.  Specifically, many traditional disinfectants require a dwell time of 10 minutes whereby the surface must remain wet for the disinfectant to work – to kill the target organisms.  However, keeping surfaces wet for 10 minutes is often difficult, if not impossible.

For example, in Las Vegas where relative humidity averages only 30 percent, it is harder to keep the surface wet for 10 minutes before the disinfectant evaporates.  In low humidity climates, the disinfectant can evaporate before the disinfectant has done its job.  Whereas in Orlando where relative humidity averages 75 percent, an appropriate amount of a disinfectant solution necessary to kill the pathogens may increase the risk of slips and falls as floors remain wet for an extended period of time.

Then, there are the surfaces themselves.  These include vertical surfaces such as elevator buttons and light switches, and those that are round such as the railings on a hospital bed or door knobs.  These surfaces due to their construction make it difficult for the disinfectant solution to stay on the surface for the necessary time.  Plus, buildings are full of devices such as computer keyboards and printers that can be damaged by the amount of water necessary to keep them wet for 10 minutes.

What’s The Solution?

Today, newer disinfectant technologies exist. These products kill the targeted pathogens and better serve the needs and limitations of our cleaning processes and time constraints, surfaces, environmental factors, vulnerable occupants, and other health concerns.

To help facility managers make more informed choices, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently changed its policy on labelling disinfectants.  Working with the Safer Choice Program (formerly the Design for the Environment program), EPA has launched a Green Disinfectant program.  This program has identified a number of active ingredients such as ethyl alcohol (the same active ingredient used in alcohol based hand sanitizers), citric acid and hydrogen peroxide which the EPA has determined are safer for health and the environment compared to more traditional disinfectants such as chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite) or quaternary ammonium compounds (quats).

Also, forget old-fashioned disinfectants with a 10-minute dwell time.  These should be replaced with those that require only 30 seconds to do the job.  This will increase their efficacy in more situations including those with high or low relative humidity and on vertical or round surfaces.

Finally, newer technologies exist like ethyl alcohol that do not require the surfaces to be rinsed after disinfecting or sanitizing on food contact surfaces.  Not only are these solutions proven to be safer for human health compared to traditional technologies that must be removed before contact, but they also save time.


New disinfectant technologies are now available that are effective against pathogens and deliver the protection we desire for our building occupants and cleaning personnel.  And make sure the selection considers the amount of time available and the surfaces that need to be cleaned.

So look for disinfectants that carry the EPA’s Design for the Environment certification, have a short dwell time and a no-rinse claim.  For more information on EPA’s Green Disinfectant program, go to https://www.epa.gov/saferchoice/design-environment-pesticides.

Stephen P. Ashkin is Executive Director of the Green Cleaning Network a not-for-profit organization dedicated to educating building owners and suppliers about Green Cleaning, and president of The Ashkin Group a consulting firm specializing in Greening the cleaning industry. He is considered the “father of Green Cleaning” and is coauthor of both The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies.

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