Green Cleaning 101 for Healthcare Facilities


By Steve Ashkin

With spring and Spring Cleaning right around the corner, this is a good time for us to have a little review period about Green Cleaning—Green Cleaning 101, if you will—with a focus on Green Cleaning in healthcare facilities. This includes a review of the principles and concepts behind the use of environmentally preferable cleaning products and what these applications mean to cleaning professionals, healthcare professionals, and staff and patients in medical locations.

Green Cleaning Spring Cleaning

Let’s begin by defining Green Cleaning. The most straightforward definition of this term is “the use of cleaning products and procedures that help protect the health of building users while also having a reduced impact on the user, building occupants, and the environment when compared to similar products used for the same purposes.”

If we look a bit deeper, we see there are actually two concepts involved in this definition, and this is critically important for a healthcare facility manager to understand.  One goal is to reduce cleaning’s impact on the environment, yes, but our primary goal in cleaning is to protect health. Fortunately, after years of research and advances in technology, scores of manufacturers now produce environmentally preferable cleaning products that more than adequately address both of these goals.

What Green Cleaning Encompasses

Many healthcare administrators mistakenly believe that Green Cleaning is all about chemicals. What we must also understand is that the equipment used for cleaning is equally important in reaching our goal. In fact, in some cases, for instance in a facility seeking LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, using the right cleaning equipment can make or break whether the facility earns certification.

For instance, three mainstays of cleaning equipment have made significant advancements in becoming Green: floor machines, vacuums, and extractors.

In general, a Green floor machine has attributes such as these:

  • A quiet motor: LEED standards require that floor machines, along with other cleaning equipment, meet specific low-decibel settings.
  • Low moisture: A low-moisture automatic scrubber has an advanced squeegee and vacuum system so that chemicals, solution, and contaminants are thoroughly and quickly recovered. It should also have variable-speed pumps for more effective low-moisture cleaning.  This allows floors to dry quickly, helping to promote safety.
  • Less chemical and water: Green automatic scrubbers use less chemical and water than conventional machines.
  • Indoor air quality protection: The machine should have its own vacuum system to trap and hold dust, dirt, and contaminants as the machine is being used. Typically, the machine will also have a shroud covering its base to minimize the amount of dust and debris escaping from the machine.
  • Maintenance-free gel batteries: Conventional batteries can be dangerous to work with. Maintenance-free gel batteries require no maintenance and are overall much more environmentally responsible.
  • Cylindrical brush technology: Some manufacturers now produce floor machines that use brushes instead of pads. The potential benefit of the brush system is that it can dig deeper into porous floors and grout than a rotary machine which may mean less water and chemical is necessary, reducing the machine’s impact on the environment.

A Green vacuum cleaner has an advanced high-filtration system that traps and holds dust and debris so that it is not released with the machine’s exhaust. Taking this a step further, the machine should also be designed so that little or no air escapes through the machine’s casing. The machine should be as airtight as possible.

As to carpet extractors, cleaning industry manufacturers have made giant strides in the past decade, producing   highly effective, low-moisture equipment. At one time, extractors used as much as one to two gallons of water per minute. Unless the machine had an extremely powerful vacuum motor, with this much moisture saturation the carpets could take several hours, even days, for the carpets to dry. Low-moisture extractors, on the other hand, typically use less than one gallon of water per minute and, very importantly, ensure that carpets dry in less than 24 hours.* This helps ensure mold and mildew do not develop in the carpets and that less water and chemical are used in the cleaning process.

What Type of Cleaning Products Can Be Used Where?

It might come as a surprise to some readers that a longtime advocate of Green cleaning such as myself would admit there are areas of a healthcare facility where environmentally preferable cleaning products should not be used. However, that is the case, as I shall explain.

It is estimated that on any given day, hospitals in the United States have close to 700,000 patients in their facilities. There are more than 4.5 million people working in these healthcare locations and likely another 100,000 medical professionals in training. Some of these people are located in surgery areas, others in public clinics, and still others in the administration areas of the facility. To serve the needs of such a facility appropriately, we must divide the hospital into three key categories:

  • Critical and high risk: Such areas as emergency rooms and surgery areas fall into this category. These areas must use specific disinfectants as required by law. Disinfectants in the United States cannot be marketed or labeled as Green. For this reason, only conventional disinfectants that meet government regulations can be used in these areas.
  • Semicritical areas: Public clinics, rehabilitation areas, nurseries, restrooms, and so forth fall into this category and as long as a disinfectant is not called for. As an example, a Green glass cleaner does not include ammonia or other ingredients that can be harmful to the user and the environment.
  • Noncritical areas: The administrative sections of a medical facility should be treated just like a conventional office for any type of business or organization. Here environmentally preferable cleaning products can be used at all times.

One More Definition and a Caveat

The term Green certification should also be defined. One of the most important advances in Green Cleaning evolved several years ago when independent, third-party certification organizations were created. These organizations have established specific standards and criteria indicating what ingredients can and cannot be used in a Green Cleaning chemical.

Essentially, they have done the homework for medical facility administrators. If the product is Green certified and bears the label of a respected certification organization, administrator and custodial departments can rest assured the product has a reduced impact on the environment.

And the caveat?

One of the problems Green Cleaning advocates often encounter when evaluating cleaning in medical facilities is that custodial crews do not divide the facility into the three sections noted earlier: critical, semicritical, and noncritical. Either they are unaware of this concept or they have simply developed a tendency to use the same powerful disinfectants and other chemicals used in critical areas in all areas of the building. This can have a serious negative impact on the environment, is wasteful, and can prove economically costly. Sectioning the facility into three sections as discussed and making sure Green Cleaning chemicals are used where appropriate can help.

We really can’t end a discussion of Green Cleaning 101 without commenting on sustainability, the next evolution in Green Cleaning. The cleaning industry, as with other industries, is getting more and more concerned about its use and impact on natural resources. Green Cleaning products do not use petroleum or many of the other ingredients found in conventional products that are nonsustainable. Although there are many facets to this new trend, suffice it to say that Green Cleaning and the use of Green Cleaning products are not only protecting the health of our planet but its resources as well.

Image: Courtesy of iStockphoto