Keeping Your Workers Healthy

Workplace cleaning trends to address the causes and costs of employee absenteeism

sick, absenteeism, illness

Every year, U.S. employers lose an estimated US$3,600 per hourly worker and an additional $2,650 per salaried worker to employee absenteeism, according to a report from CIRCADIAN, a company that provides workforce performance and safety solutions for businesses that operate around the clock. A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offered a more conservative per-worker estimate but still pegged the total nationwide cost of productivity losses linked to chronic absence at $225.8 billion.

One of the key drivers of employee absenteeism is health challenges which, according to an analysis by the Integrated Benefits Institute,  cost U.S employers a staggering $575 billion per year. These are the kinds of numbers no business can afford to ignore.

Institutions looking to get a handle on health-driven absenteeism should look to the supply closet. The products we use to clean and disinfect our public spaces are as important as they are often overlooked.

Many of these products contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which have been connected to liver and kidney damage, central nervous system damage, and more. Other common ingredients, like ammonia and bleach, are also highly toxic. It shouldn’t be surprising then when employees, who are exposed to these chemicals on a regular basis (especially those responsible for applying them), are calling in sick.  

Fortunately, there are ways to manage, minimize, or even effectively eliminate these risks. Here are four trends that facility maintenance managers can follow to make a difference, for both their workforce’s health and their firm’s bottom line.

1. Avoid common pitfalls and prioritize proper use

The first step is to make sure all employees understand the difference between disinfection and cleaning, which are often mistaken for synonyms. In fact, cleaning removes dirt and grime, while disinfection actually kills germs. Both traditionally involve chemicals, but disinfectants are significantly more potent

It makes sense to provide this clarifier as part of broader employee training that covers safety measures such as necessary protective barriers for any given chemical.

In addition, it’s critical to follow the product label’s usage instructions and to insist on only using the necessary amount of product and no more. Wiping down a disinfectant too quickly can result in the survival of germs, while overuse of most disinfectants can contribute to the spread of resistant strains of bacteria—which, of course, will only exacerbate the problem of health-related absenteeism.

2. Focus on high-touch areas and using safer products

It’s important to be thoughtful about the type and frequency of sanitization treatments required in each part of a building. When we assume that one size fits all, we quickly begin overusing chemicals that can harm employees’ health. Thoroughness is good—so long as it’s not actually thoughtlessness in disguise.

Most disinfectant products don’t permit you to disinfect as often as you would like given health concerns—allergic reactions, skin irritation, asthma, and risks of ingestion after treating food-contact surfaces. Look for disinfectants that are registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and included on List N, that also have third-party certifications for safety and sustainability—such as Green Seal. These products may allow flexibility to disinfect safely and more frequently. 

Every building and industry is different (health care settings will require more intense disinfection protocols, for example), but the CDC provides a good rule of thumb: regularly clean and disinfect high-touch areas, but leave low-touch areas for when they are visibly dirty. 

Consider whether you should replace your disinfectant with a safer alternative, or whether you’re using disinfectant where cleaner would do. That kind of intentional planning may just be the difference between a reliable and an absentee workforce.

3. Choose microfiber cloths

Microfiber cleaning cloths are another popular trend, with a compound annual growth rate projected at 4.5%, according to Future Market Insights. Given the advantages they bring to the table, it’s easy to understand why.

This extremely fine synthetic material measures half the diameter of a fiber of fine silk and at least 100 times smaller than human hair. This fineness allows microfiber cloths to clean a significantly larger surface area than an apparently similarly sized cloth made of more traditional materials.

The highest quality microfibers are split still further, up to 200 times smaller in diameter than human hair, allowing them to catch and hold more dirt. In addition, microfiber’s positive charge further enhances this property because it attracts negatively charged dirt particles. The net result is significantly greater absorption—many microfiber fabrics can hold seven times their weight in water—and more effective cleaning using fewer chemicals. It’s a great way to significantly reduce exposure to harmful products in any workplace.

But be warned: microfiber is not recommended as a replacement for cleaning products beyond everyday jobs. Nor does it kill germs, which means the cloths are no replacement for tasks that require a full-fledged disinfectant.

4. Use the latest technology

To ensure surfaces are completely disinfected, turn to some of the latest technological breakthroughs in the cleaning and disinfection space. New products that boast not only of reducing toxicity, but eliminating it entirely, are increasingly appearing on the market.

Electrolyzed water, produced through a chemical process called electrolysis that any company can now produce on-site and as-needed, may be the most prominent example.

When electricity activates the ions in a saltwater solution, it creates two entirely new solutions: sodium hydroxide, which can act as a heavy-duty cleaner and degreaser, and hypochlorous acid, a disinfectant that’s 80-120 times stronger than bleach yet is completely natural and safe for humans and the environment.

Hypochlorous acid is the same substance our bodies produce to fight infection, so it is safe to spray on the skin as a sanitizer. It’s even harmless if ingested (which is why it’s also used for eye, wound, and veterinary care).

Technologies like electrolyzed water may just point the way to a completely nontoxic future for cleaning and disinfection. For any company that’s serious about reducing health-related absenteeism, that’s very good news.


Joshua Schwartz

President & Co-Founder, Viking Pure

Joshua Schwartz is an active developer of medical real estate and supportive housing. Prior to Viking Pure, he was the president of an Article 28 Diagnostic and Treatment Center. Schwartz began his career in the financial industry, first in investment banking at Citigroup and then at private equity firm Apollo Management.

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