Teachers have the "germiest" jobs in America. That's what Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, has concluded. Alongside more than 50 million students, teachers spend every school day trapped inside buildings with millions of invisible pathogens such as staph, E-Coli, shigella, influenza, MRSA and mold — pathogens that can cause serious illness and sometimes death.

Only one professional can do anything about getting rid of germs once they have infected buildings: the school custodian. Custodians should be the first line of defense against pathogens in schools. Unfortunately, most are not trained or equipped to deal with this invisible world. They are armed with antiquated tools — mops and buckets, rags and spray bottles — that don't effectively remove bacteria or other micro-contaminants. In fact, they can spread it around, becoming disseminators that carry disease from surface to surface, classroom to classroom. As Gerba has noted, "Mops and rags give germs a free ride …. You can actually make things worse … if you are not cleaning properly."

Facility maintenance managers face an additional hardship: they are expected to confront this greater risk of infectious disease as they deal with reduced budgets and cutbacks. Caught between these conflicting goals, how is a manager to cope? One way, which may appear counterintuitive, is to integrate measurement as part of the daily cleaning process.

Measuring results

How can adding another step to the process help when staffs are being reduced? First, measurement enables custodians to determine if they are cleaning the right things in the right way. Second, it can provide evidence to concerned parents that the school is doing everything it can to keep kids safe.

Integrated cleaning and measurement (ICM) is an approach to cleaning that incorporates measurement as a cornerstone of the process. Education institutions want to be able to organize and equip staff to focus on results and then prove that what they are doing is effective.

The goal is to successfully connect measured cleaning results with improved student health and an improved bottom line. Maintenance managers want cleaning to be evaluated as much for health-based outcomes and operational effect as it is now for whether or not a school looks and smells clean.

As institutions measure and improve what they actually are doing — and publicize these successes — the benefits to student and teacher health and building operations will raise the level of respect that a district, school administration and parents have for the custodial department.