It was a scene that seemed straight out of Ghostbusters. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Randy Burke was in the lobby of an office tower when three people in full hazmat suits with breather masks raced by.
They were janitors sent in to sterilize an office where an employee had a suspected case of the novel coronavirus.
“In my 30 years in the cleaning business, I have never seen the level of intensity and focus in our industry,” says Mr. Burke, president of Toronto-based commercial cleaning consultancy DCS Global. The hazmat team is an example of a disinfecting zeal that initially led to a spike in costs of cleaning commercial buildings, despite the fact that as many as 90 per cent of employees in many buildings across Canada continue to work from home.
Over the difficult past seven months, property managers and cleaning specialists have learned a lot –and costs have started to come down – while focusing on measures designed to keep tenants safe in workplaces despite what appears to be a cresting second wave hitting the country this fall, he says.
Nothing has been more central than cleaning in discussions with property managers since the onset of COVID-19, says Benjamin Shinewald, president of the Canada Building Owners and Management Association of Canada (BOMA), which has 3,500 members.
“Even if only a few employees are coming into offices, they still touch things and that could lead to a spread of virus from someone who is infected.” That’s led to a rise of what’s known as touchpoint cleaning.
“There may be no need to vacuum daily on a floor where traffic is low and there’s no dirt coming in on shoes, but you are worried about what those who are there have touched: a door handle, the fridge door, the bathroom stall and sink faucets. Regular disinfecting of elevator buttons and even revolving doors have become big issues this year and I don’t see that going away,” Mr. Shinewald says.
Pandemic cleaning protocols are evolving for sanitizing based on activity and traffic flow, he says: “Half the battle is figuring out where people are.” For instance, buildings are installing movement sensors that can register the number of times a washroom door is opened or the activity in a food court and can redeploy cleaners at times when more frequent surface cleaning is required.
Cost-plus cleaning contract models are growing in popularity as they provide built-in flexibility to dial up or dial down cleaning activity and cost, Mr. Burke says. DCS Global has developed a program called Clean + Safe, with detailed protocols for risk assessments, cleaning and sanitization scheduling and specifics on equipment and materials to be used depending on the severity of the pandemic risk.
DCS also employs a bioluminescent imaging technology it calls Pathfinder to identify organic and biomass contamination. DNA-activated spray on surfaces is photographed with a set of filters that show any live virus and bacteria that have not been removed from surfaces. Although not specific to the coronavirus, this helps verify the thoroughness of cleaning techniques, Mr. Burke says.
While in the past, cleaning crews often worked overnight, office cleansing is increasingly becoming a daytime business. Costs are generally the same as night cleaning and it can save energy costs for lighting, while at the same time reassuring tenants that their workplaces are being kept sanitary, Mr. Burke says. The key to daytime cleaning is communicating the system to tenants and scheduling noisy, obtrusive tasks such as vacuuming and mopping floors in the off-hours.
The pandemic has also redefined the team cleaning model, which had divided cleaning staff into specialist jobs such as vacuuming, washroom sanitization or trash collection, he says. “While team cleaning is slightly more efficient than other systems, it is less suitable for today’s pandemic cleaning demands as it requires all the staff to work in the same spaces. This increases the probability of infecting other staff and tenants.” Increasingly, portions of a building are now assigned to a single cleaner.
Equipment and techniques have also changed in the pandemic, requiring cleaners to wear personal protective equipment and adding anti-viral treatment as a second step after initial cleaning of surfaces. Vacuuming is also preferable to sweeping or dusting because it doesn’t raise dust particles, which can carry COVID-19 droplets, into the air, Mr. Burke adds.
The extra labour-intensive steps mean cleaning can cost more. Cleaning is generally contracted by the building management, with the cost passed along to tenants as part of the common area maintenance costs (which also include heating, air conditioning and security) that, before COVID, averaged about $1.50 a square foot of leased space. In the initial COVID wave, additional cleaning costs added about a 20-per-cent premium, but that has currently dropped in many buildings to below the pre-COVID averages because so many offices are nearly empty and need less daily cleaning. Developing efficient cleaning programs to keep cleaning costs under control as occupancies rise is in the best interest of landlords, to keep lease costs competitive in the future, Mr. Shinewald says.
Retaining cleaning staff has also become more competitive because there’s been an explosion in demand for commercial cleaners, he adds. With offices closed, many in the former commercial cleaning labour force have been recruited by retirement and long-term care homes and hospitals.
“What 911 was to the security industry COVID is to the cleaning industry,” Mr. Shinewald says. “It has taken some pretty underappreciated people in an industry that used to exist in the background and made [us] realize that what they do is important. We’ve got to value them more.”
Questions from recently revised Pathway Back to Work Checklist for building managers
- Have you created a detailed touchpoint checklist and intervals for cleaning including door handles, touch screens, push plates, light switches, elevator buttons/ handrails, washrooms (faucet levers, towel dispensers), food court trays and vending machines?
- Have you confirmed that your service provider has the right cleaning methodology, chemicals and equipment for each surface?
- Has your service provider given you documentation confirming their frontline workers have received proper COVID-19 training?
- Have you created a plan for swab and imaging testing to demonstrate the effectiveness of your cleaning program in removing living organisms?
- Are you asking the service provider for daily reports on suspected problem areas or locations that may have been missed?
- Have you created provisions for a biohazard specialist to decontaminate impacted areas if a case of COVID-19 is suspected or confirmed in your building? (Note: Do not use your regular cleaning crew to decontaminate a space that has had a case of coronavirus present).
Source: Building Owners and Management Association of Canada