The number of infectious diseases that cleaning professionals can encounter in the facilities they clean is enough to make a person throw in the towel – or vacuum cleaner, in this case—on the cleaning industry and find some other line of work. Of course many of these diseases are the obvious and not-so-harmful ones, such as colds and influenza, which can be contracted while cleaning workers perform their cleaning duties. But since the SARS outbreak a decade ago, some infectious diseases have gotten considerably worse, often more contagious, and deadly.
Maybe this is a good time for a quick review of the SARS outbreak. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) officially began in November 2002. The SARS virus was spread through close contact with an infected individual, usually by inhalation of contaminated droplets from a cough or sneeze. It can also be spread by touching a contaminated surface.1
Of particular concern to cleaning professionals is the fact that SARS can live for three or more days without a human host on paper, cotton clothes, metal objects, plastic, glass, and in soil. This is why, when there was greater understanding of the virus, cleaning professionals were instructed to clean, sanitize, or disinfect "high-touch areas" such as door knobs, elevator buttons, ledges, railings, etc.
Other Workplace Infectious Diseases
There is no specific data as to how many cleaning workers either became sick or died from SARS, but we do know that between November 2002 and June 2003, officially 8,098 people contracted the virus and 774 died from it worldwide. While SARS was certainly one of the most dramatic public health scares in recent years – at least until Ebola –there are other less dramatic but still serious infectious diseases that cleaning professionals need to know about to protect their own health because these can be spread in the facilities they clean.
Among these are the following:
Hepatitis A is most often spread when someone who has the virus touches food or drink that is then consumed by others. A caution specifically for cleaning professionals—you can catch the disease by touching an infected surface and then touching your mouth or eyes. About a decade ago, members of an Atlanta cleaning crew contracted Hepatitis A by touching contaminated surfaces in a child-care facility cleaned by the crew.2
While Hepatitis C is frequently associated with drug users and prison inmates, according to General Insurance Services, an 80-year-old insurance company based in Indiana, it can also be considered a workplace disease because "as many as 15 percent of the documented cases of Hepatitis C have no obvious source." These cases, often referred to as "community-acquired," are of concern specifically to cleaning workers because the disease can be spread if, for instance, a cleaning worker has an open wound that comes into contact with an infected surface.
Also listed as "communicable diseases" in the workplace are Infectious Mononucleosis and surprisingly, Tuberculosis or TB. Of concern to cleaning workers, mononucleosis can be spread by coming into contact with personal items used by an infected individual such as telephones, mouth pieces or phone headsets, computers, or other desktop items. Tuberculosis, on the other hand, is spread through the air when an infected individual coughs or sneezes. Anyone near the sick person who breathes TB germs into their lungs can become sick. Fortunately for cleaning workers, in this case there is no evidence that TB is spread by touching a contaminated surface, however, if it is reported in a facility they clean, personal protection gear and other precautions should be considered.
Because Ebola is a major concern at the moment, having taken the lives of more than 3,000 people as of this writing, possibly we should discuss this disease in a straightforward, question and answer format.
What is Ebola?
Ebola is a virus that can cause fever, headache, joint and muscle aches, weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, lack of appetite, and abnormal bleeding. Symptoms appear anywhere from 2 to 21 days after exposure to Ebola virus.
If you contract Ebola is death inevitable?
No. The death rate can be as high as 90 percent depending on a number of variables such as when it is detected and when treatment begins. The current death rate is about 60 to 70 percent.3
How is Ebola spread?
In most cases, Ebola is spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, according to the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These fluids include blood, sweat, vomit, feces, urine, saliva or semen. But if someone touches a contaminated surface and there is an entry point, like a cut or scrape on someone's hands or someone touches their nose, mouth or eyes with contaminated hands, it can be spread from one person to another.
What You Can Do
Because of Ebola, cleaning professionals must re-evaluate the steps they take to protect their health and the health of others they come into contact with. Most of these steps involve effective hand washing, but there are other steps cleaning pros must be aware of including the following:
1. Wash your hands in hot, soapy water before cleaning restrooms; this stops the spread of the disease if a surface you have touched before entering the restroom might have been contaminated.
2. Avoid placing anything on a restroom counter or on the floor; this can apply to other surfaces including food service areas. Should the counter or floor be contaminated, germs and bacteria potentially could be transferred from the surface to your hands when you pick up the items.
3. In restrooms specifically, when touching the partition door handle to a stall, always use a cleaning cloth and wipe the handle clean, sanitize, and/or disinfect it.
4. Use a paper towel or cleaning cloth to touch the flush controls on restroom fixtures or faucets in other areas of the facility when there is concern.
5. Before cleaning a toilet or urinal, flush first; stand a couple of feet away from the fixture while it is flushing to avoid any "spray" from the fixture.
6. Practice the standard precautions especially when cleaning restrooms and food service areas: wear gloves, goggles, and avoid skin contact with obviously soiled items or surfaces.
7. In place of traditional cleaning methods, select what ISSA calls "spray-and-vac" cleaning systems. This helps prevent direct contact with all surfaces.
8. Wash hands again after cleaning especially after cleaning restrooms, and have paper towels at hand so you do not have to grab them from a dispenser.
We are going to get through the Ebola outbreak just as we did SARS. What the toll will be is the great unknown. We will also find – once again—that the professional cleaning industry plays a crucial role in minimizing this outbreak and protecting the health of building users.
1 According to the CDC, SARS can "spread by touching contaminated objects or surfaces then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes."
2 As reported by Robert Kravitz, owner of the cleaning company involved.
3 World Health Organization, as of September 2014