Why cleaners are at risk of spreading COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic has placed a spotlight on risks in the cleaning process like never before.

We’ve been focused on cleaning and disinfecting surfaces effectively to remove the virus and protect building occupants.

We’ve talked about hand hygiene and preventing the risk of cross-contaminating surfaces. And we’ve paid attention to protecting cleaners on the front-line via properly fitted (and removed) PPE.

But until recently, I had not considered the risk of cleaning personnel being a potential source of COVID-19 transmission.

Cleaners are a high risk of spreading COVID-19

Victoria’s Hotel Quarantine Inquiry found the casual workforce were at the epicentre of Melbourne’s second wave. The report states casual workers pose a high risk of spreading the virus because:

  • They are often migrants who don’t understand the risks and rules, or young people who ignore them
  • Without paid leave entitlements or job security, casuals cannot afford to isolate for two weeks and are scared of losing their job if they do, so they keep quiet and keep working
  • Being on minimum wages, they often hold two or more jobs, spreading germs between workplaces.

This is a huge risk for Australia and the cleaning industry. According to a 2019 parliamentary inquiry, there are more than 2.6 million casual workers employed in Australia, representing 24.4 per cent of all employees. More than 40 per cent of cleaners are casually employed, with many more permanent part-time workers.

Lessons from a shopping centre outbreak

In August a cleaner working at The Butcher Club at Victoria’s Chadstone Shopping Centre tested positive for COVID-19.

By early October, there were 31 active cases with two other shops and members of the public affected, and The Butcher Club manager in intensive care.

A delivery man travelled 115kms north of Melbourne and sat in a cafe, infecting a further 5 people.

At least four businesses had to close and all associated staff and families placed in two weeks isolation, some seriously ill, because one cleaner failed to self-isolate after family members were diagnosed with COVID-19.

Five strategies to prevent the spread

The potential risks and consequences of your cleaners inadvertently spreading COVID-19 to your customer’s staff, and visitors through your own team could be devastating.

I highly recommend you add this risk in your risk management plan and consider the following five strategies.

1.  Hand and surface hygiene

We really can’t expect cleaners to take hygiene seriously unless they are given a workspace and supplies that allows them to take it seriously.

So now is great time to request and fit out the cleaner’s room with improved ventilation, shelving, and running water for sinks and cloth laundering facilities.

When I audit cleaner’s room, I want to see:

  • Dispensing systems for accurate dosing of detergents and disinfectants
  • Washing bucket or washing machine, a drying rack or electric dryer, plus clean cloths and mops
  • Hand soap, hand sanitiser and plenty of gloves
  • Posters for washing hands, using hand-rub and removing gloves safely

2. Supervision

How did the employer of the cleaner at the heart of The Butcher Club outbreak, not know their staff member was told to self-isolate by the DHHS? Would you have known? We provide procedure templates with our Guide to Cleaning for COVID-19* that require:

  • Cleaners to sign an agreement to inform you if they need to isolate
  • COVID-Safe Champions to inform cleaners about symptoms and rules, and to regularly check on each staff member
  • Managers to report all cases and contact all other team members if it occurs.

3. Training

Cleaning and disinfecting practices in your standard operating procedures and cleaning manuals must align with government guidelines. Cleaners should be given COVID-19 infection control training covering:

  • The correct handling of cloths and wipes to prevent cross-contamination
  • The correct use of disinfectants: cleaning first and allowing sufficient contact time
  • The correct method of taking off gloves and masks so they don’t reinfect themselves

Wear masks and don’t share equipment while cleaning and training. Hold hands-on training outdoors or in large well-ventilated spaces that enable physical distancing

4. Scheduling duties – to enable physical distancing

Physical distancing while cleaning has unique challenges, such as:

  • Cleaner’s rooms are often small and poorly ventilated
  • Daytime cleaning personnel move around all staff and visitors
  • Cleaners often work and take breaks unsupervised.
  • Cleaners working after hours may be used to car-pooling when travelling to and from different sites.

An effective solution is to schedule cleaner’s shifts and duty workflows to enable physical distancing:

  • Stagger break times or set up physically distanced areas
  • Stagger start and finish times: e.g. one cleaner prepares supplies in the cleaner’s room before other staff arrive; and one cleaner remains after the others have left to disinfect high touch points without the risk of recontamination
  • Adjust workflows: e.g. one cleaner washes cleaning cloths while the other finishes mopping and waste removal.

5. Scheduling duties for high touch point cleaning

Schedule cleaning and disinfecting of high touch points (HTPs) according to the surface and level of risk. For example, in busy public spaces high touch points should be cleaned throughout the day.

Along with your customer, list the critical HTPs (surfaces that many people touch and at higher risk of being contaminated), then schedule the frequency of cleaning shared between the occupant’s staff and your team. Make sure the same disinfectants are used, so they don’t react or neutralise each other.

You may need to adjust the cleaning schedules or budget to make this work, and invest in better systems and training, but it’s in everyone’s best interests to do so.

You need to be confident that your cleaning teams are removing the risk of infection from a building – not bringing it in with them.

Bridget Gardner is director of High Performance Cleaning (HPC) Solutions. Bridget has written the Guide to Cleaning for COVID-19. Get in touch at: solutions@hpcsolutions.com.au 

This article first appeared in the November/December issue of INCLEAN magazine 

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