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Disinfecting is Confusing

Categories: Cleaning Applications, Cleaning for Health, ISSA

By Kerry Rigg | September 30, 2021 << Back to Articles

I was involved with the cleaning industry for almost four decades. During those years I used disinfectants, taught hundreds of custodians how to use disinfectants, and observed the misuse of disinfectants, including by me.

In high school, I cleaned and disinfected the fast-food restaurant that predated McDonald’s in my hometown. I put two gallons of hot water into a mop bucket, measured the powdered cleaner/ disinfectant and swished it around until it dissolved. Little did I know the residue from the solids in the cleaner/disinfectant remained behind on the quarry tile floor after the solution dried. The floor was always slippery and today I know why. Do you? Another factor was the mop itself. I was trained to rinse the mop after each use. I sprayed it with hot water until the soap suds stopped. Hmmm… How many days did I use the same mop? Was I disinfecting?

 So many things must go right to properly disinfect. I realize at best, my introduction to cleaning had me sanitizing, not disinfecting.

I entered the U.S. Navy in 1970 and a whole new world opened for me. When I reported to boot camp, no more powdered cleaner/disinfectant. Everywhere I went at Great Lakes Training Center smelled like pine trees, the mess hall, the barracks, the classrooms, the gym and every other nook and cranny on the base. Someone had a lucrative federal contract with the Navy. The directions were simple: put hot water into a mop bucket and pour in as much pine cleaner/disinfectant you wanted. The pine cleaner/disinfectant like many other floor care products came in gray buckets. You guessed it. This one was labeled “Pine Cleaner/Disinfectant.” Were we disinfecting? By the way, the floor wax was labeled, Navy Wax. Navy Wax was 12% carnauba so we could make swirls with our buffers.

I was a Navy musician. My job was to entertain the sailors, not only on our Seventh Fleet flagship, but on dozens of other ships from small destroyers to huge aircraft carriers. The one constant? Each ship had the same odor of pine trees. Were all these sailors disinfecting?

When you are working for the Navy, you are encouraged to advance in rank as quickly as possible. I was excited to be promoted to E5. The downside? I was put in charge of the cleaning crew for our berthing area. Any break from cleaning? Not a chance. Were we disinfecting? Not even close. On “Field Day” as the Navy called it, all hands-on deck “spit shined” and polished everything on board the ship. Therefore, we ensured pine cleaner was used from the floor to the overhead. Were we disinfecting?

I was 23 when I got out of the Navy. A few months later I was hired to sell cleaners and ancillary products used to clean and disinfect for one of the largest restaurant supply companies in the US. After attending my first factory training class in Racine, Wisconsin I realized I knew nothing about disinfecting. There, the instructor explained how proper disinfection was accomplished. First you clean the surface, second, apply the disinfectant allowing it to dwell the amount of time the label says and last, rinse to eliminate residue from the solids in the disinfectant. This leaves a surface devoid of any possible food sources for bacteria to start new colonies.

In 1978 I was hired as a manufacturer’s representative covering Virginia. We represented a line of premeasured chemicals. The concentrate was sealed in clear packets. The founder of the company told us in our ISSA meeting, he had recently been to Europe and premeasured products were taking control of their cleaning industry. When presenting this concept to the end user you would have thought we came from a different planet. Most of the comments were “my people will take them home.”

Our answer was to keep the product under lock and key and distribute only what the custodian needed for his/her shift. The prudent supervisors would ask for the empty packets before distributing more. Sorry, it was too complicated. Now, years later, it makes sense to the supervisors.

In 1985 I came off the road and went with a large ISSA member/janitorial distributor in Richmond, VA. In 1990, after several floods, we built a new distribution center near the Richmond airport. When I designed the building, I included a training room. We started a structured custodial training program. On day three we discussed disinfection along with a few other topics. I am amazed how many supervisors and business owners did not know how to properly disinfect. We would display more than 20 liquids and aerosol disinfectants we sold and ask the attendees, “how dead do want your germs to be?” Every product on display could disinfect. Back then the protocol for almost every product was to leave the surface wet for 10 minutes. Wearing the personal protective equipment required on the label we would demonstrate how to properly mix the disinfectant. Next, we applied the disinfectant to a horizontal surface. Invariably, within three to five minutes dry spots would appear. After 10 minutes less than 20% of the surface would be wet. Were we disinfecting?

The biggest misuse of disinfectants I have observed over the years is in healthcare and restrooms. Never is the disinfectant allowed to dwell the allotted time. Are they disinfecting? One year at the ISSA Show North America we attended the sales meeting for our premeasured line of products. The owner passed out an article from a Canadian medical journal. As I was reading it, my mind was opening. The world-renowned author, an epidemiologist wrote, and I am paraphrasing, extensive studies have determined hospitals waste time and budget money using disinfectants on their floors. An all-purpose cleaner does a better job. Most disinfectants disinfect and do not clean. Do you recall what I learned early on, clean-disinfect-rinse? Have you ever observed a custodian rinse after disinfecting anything?

Here is why I say disinfecting is confusing. I have heard all the arguments. The one I heard most often was, “We don’t have time to do it ‘BY THE BOOK’.” Remember what I learned? The solids left behind when the disinfectant dries leave a food source for bacteria and viruses known as biofilm. The first person to touch, cough or sneeze on the newly disinfected surface deposits bacteria and a new colony begins to contaminate the surface.

Hospital acquired infections (HAIs, also called nosocomial infections) run rampant in the one place patients go to get well. MRSA, Staphylococcus Aureus, e. coli, etc. infect thousands of patients every year. The unlucky patients never leave alive. We all know someone who contracted one of these HAI’s.

Are the institutions being properly disinfected?

In one of my U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) classes, we point out rescuers attempting to rescue victims of various accidents on the job also die. It is not a matter of judgment; it is a matter of training. Training custodians the proper protocol when disinfecting will save countless lives.

I will be speaking at the ISSA Show North America 2021 in Las Vegas and expanding on this topic. I hope to see you there.

Kerry Rigg’s presentation, Dissecting the Confusion About Disinfection in Health Care Facilities, takes place November 16 at ISSA Show North America 2021. For a sneak peek into his session, tune into the video below.

For more information on ISSA Show North America 2021 or to register, visit issashow.com.


About the Author.

Kerry Rigg is the owner of KW Safety. As an Authorized OSHA Outreach Trainer for General Industry and Construction, Rigg has trained more than 6,000 custodians in every aspect of cleaning.