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Why you should consider cleaning as a factor in personal liability claims
Futureclean Assured Systems is a well-established consultancy focusing on cleaning: its systems, cleaning change management and improvement and designing new systems for old, new designs for safer products and implementation of newer and much more effective systems. The consultancy is often called upon as an 'expert witness' in litigation cases. It knows more than most, about cleaning systems and techniques...
Having a background in chemistry, over 20 years' practical industrial and commercial cleaning experience, as well as teaching experience, enables it to make informed decisions on all aspects of cleaning and safer systems of work. It has a popular training site - the Cleaning Masterclass - where it teaches new cleaners to use its systems.
In this article, which accompanied a case study in The Expert Witness (www.expertwitnessjournal.co.uk), the company's Rafael Cobos AMIMarEST, shares some of his expertise...
What is needed in a cleaning system?
A complete cleaning system is a combination of many different parts that must work together seamlessly to meet the three most fundamental requirements of cleaning: aesthetics, hygiene and safety. Most people consider the function of cleaning to be purely one of aesthetics - to remove the daily soiling and to provide a visually appealing place to work, visit or rest.
There's more to cleaning than that. When it comes to acute and routine infection control, cleaning is at the front-line, providing not just prevention of spread of contamination in acute hazardous waste handling, but also the routine control of 'day-to-day' contamination on surfaces frequently handled by people. Cleaning plays a vital part in both the remediation and prevention of safety incidences from occurring; cleaners are often the 'first responders' to deal with these incidences.
A cleaning system should contain: a list of cleaning equipment and products required, including all necessary usage and dilution instructions, method statements and schedule for all the cleaning tasks employed, sufficiently detailed cleaning standards required to achieve, general and specific risk and COSHH assessments and a record of training provided and dates for training reassessments.
However, there are parts of the complete cleaning system, like training, that are often not considered to be important, but without all the parts working together, the ability of the cleaning to provide the three fundamental requirements will deteriorate rapidly. The end result has the potential to cause serious injuries to cleaning and non-cleaning staff, visitors and to the public.
From an aesthetics point of view, cleaning companies are contracted to provide cleaning services to a client, according to a cleaning schedule and a set of cleaning standards. But, more often than not, these cleaning standards are either non-existent or simply inadequate, so how can reasonable cleaning standards be enforced in a contractual dispute?
One large office-based company contracted a facilities management company to provide routine overnight cleaning services. Over many months, the head of facilities at the company received a number of complaints from staff regarding the falling standards; these complaints were passed on to the FM company. However, the written standards to achieve in the contract were so vague that the FM company argued that it was not in breach, and so an impasse resulted. We were called in to independently audit the premises and report, given the nature of the contract, whether a reasonable level of cleaning standards was achieved.
From a hygiene point of view, an inadequate cleaning system, either through poor implementation of the cleaning system or a poor cleaning system implemented correctly, is the main cause of the spread of deep-seated infections inherent in hospitals, clinics, cruise lines and anywhere where there are many people sited in small or enclosed areas. Where there is a requirement to maintain high cleaning standards, because of the high-risk environment, the detail and breadth of the cleaning system (and cleaning standards) must be sufficiently raised to match the environment. This includes the additional requirements around disinfection procedures and disinfectants, particularly when you consider that there is no visual method with which we can tell if those procedures have been carried out adequately.
The soiling itself may pose a risk to the cleaner; it may be classed as hazardous waste, like bodily fluids, mould (and algae), animal wastes, or physical hazard like broken glass, or a chemical hazard such as in cleaning up spills. In all these cases, there must be provision in the cleaning system to allow for the safe removal, handling and disposal of the soiling, but the cleaning system must be enforced in its use.
Futureclean Assured Systems has a long (over 11 years) and ongoing experience in consultancy work in marine environments and naval ship husbandry and we know well that at the root of all problems here, is the inadequacy of cleaning and the products being used which can also affect the ship systems. The food industry has the same issues and is partially addressed by HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) system but does not address the essential cleaning - often specialist, needed to make HACCP work.
Indoor air quality may be related to necessary but neglected air conditioning and ventilation systems, including mould contamination within the vent system. This is only ever a cleaning and maintenance issue but has wider implications in 'sick building syndrome', commonly found in many newer builds.
From a safety point of view, there are two major groups at risk: the cleaner and everyone in the immediate vicinity. Within both of those groups the cleaning system plays a vital part in both remediating a safety situation and preventing a safety incident. The cleaner and everyone in the vicinity bear the consequences of a poor cleaning system or a cleaning system poorly implemented.
A poor cleaning system provides insufficient detail or forethought to the nature of the risks posed by cleaning products and equipment, including the possibility of unintended consequences when certain cleaning methods are specified.
For example, one school decided to replace scrubber-driers with mops and buckets, because cleaning staff were complaining of backache. The staff were inadequately trained in manual and safe working practices. The management thought that replacing the machines with mops and buckets would solve the problem, but didn't take into account and were ill-prepared for the additional musculo-skeletal damage caused by incorrectly sized mops for the cleaning tasks. Big mops and buckets were purchased with the intention of maintaining the same time spent cleaning, but those mops and buckets were too heavy to use safely (buckets have wheels but still need to be lifted).
More often than not, the safe use and handling of cleaning chemicals (part of COSHH) is poorly implemented for cleaners. Management may have on record all the safety information relating to those chemicals; namely the Safety Data Sheets, for all the cleaning products in use, but the information contained in those sheets is often not passed down competently to the cleaners - the end users.
Cleaners must have access to this information, in some form, as well as knowledge in interpreting that information, so that they can safety use the products.
It is management's responsibility to pass all available safety and safety-related information and deliver that information to the all relevant parties. This is often delivered through training or 'Tool Box' talks. However, there is a pervasive complacency with both management and cleaners to the seriousness of the risks involved. Both parties often ignore or regard the risks as not essential with potential problems, even regarding the use of protective gloves as optional.
With all products, certain conditions of use will apply, which must be followed to ensure safe use. For example, Chlorine-based disinfectant products in tablet or powder form (a common disinfectant product used in clinical and high-risk settings) must be used carefully. Use at elevated water temperatures, and the product can produce very irritating and often dangerous fumes. If these products come in contact with acids, whether in use or in storage, dangerous fumes will be created.
All this safety information and more is contained within the safety data sheets, product labels and technical data sheets, and is assessed as part the COSHH assessment and ultimately forms part of the cleaning system - if not, then the cleaning system has failed and safety compromised. If it is adequately covered in the cleaning system, then the implementation is at fault.
Two common examples are in the use of standard personal protective equipment; in these cases a simple matter of wearing gloves to protect the hands from day-to-day cleaning. In the first example, a cleaner would often refuse to wear gloves stating that she was using 'safe' cleaning products and had never had any problems before. What materialised over the months was a slow but progressive damage to the skin through the removal of natural oils and greases from the skin, resulting in dermatitis. The damage progressed to the point of being a chronic problem and the cleaner had to be taken off the job.
While the reluctance of the cleaner to use gloves contributed to the damage, the management failed repeatedly to enforce the requirement to wear gloves and knew full well that the cleaner was not wearing gloves.
The second example, is the other way around: the management had no COSHH assessment, no safety information on record, not even any control of what cleaning products were brought on to site. Cleaners were asked to bring in their own products and often these were bought from the local supermarket. The cleaners were not trained in the safe use of chemicals and no checks were made as to ensure the safe use.
It came to a head when one cleaner was cleaning a toilet and the resulting reaction between two different cleaning products caused acute skin burns and breathing problems. Clearly, in this case management was responsible and had no regard for the seriousness of the risks, even regarding supermarket cleaning products as safe.
In addition to the three fundamental requirements of cleaning, there is the potential surface material damage due to either a poor cleaning system Choosing the wrong cleaning products, equipment and method, or poor implementation of the cleaning system, typically caused by inadequate cleaning training. Luxury establishments such as hotels and yachts have major problems with this issue and it can cost them tens of thousands of pounds in replacement costs.
Many common surface materials also suffer damage from inadvisedly-used cleaning products and equipment. Often unknown, a product may react with the material being cleaned - acids react with limestone, chlorine (and this includes hydrochloric acid) reacts with the surface material of stainless steel rendering the steel useless and rusty. Add to this the fact that many cleaners think that bleach and metal scouring pads are cleaning and you will see that several areas of highly expensive commercial kitchens can be and are easily damaged.
A cleaning system poorly implemented
Good quality training is at the heart of implementing a well thought out cleaning system. Professional cleaners should be properly trained in all aspects of cleaning; not just cleaning techniques of which there are many, but in the knowledge that cleaning has such a wide impact in the lives of staff, visitors, the public and to themselves. But a one-off training session is no guarantee of the smooth and safe operation of a cleaning system... There should be provision for regular reassessments of both the training and the cleaning system.
As a case in point to illustrate a cleaning system poorly implement: the cleaning in a very high foot traffic corridor had to be carried out using a specific piece of mopping equipment that ensured the floor completely dried within a minute. This specific equipment had to be used in such a way that only a minimal amount of cleaning solution was absorbed in the mop head. However, one early morning, a cleaner trained to use this equipment deliberately bypassed the safety mechanism on the equipment to speed the clean-up. This resulted in more cleaning solution being applied to the floor, which took longer to dry. Unfortunately, a member of staff ignoring the 'Wet Floor' signs, slipped up and this resulted in serious brain damage. If the cleaner had followed the training and operated the equipment correctly, the slip would not have resulted.
There are so many incidences of where cleaning has had a direct and indirect impact in personal injury, and often in circumstances that are not always immediately obvious.
Failures in cleaning can result in more than just slips on wet floors, as we have demonstrated here. Slips and trips are the obvious ones but in case preparation, it often pays to look back to see where something like the cleaning is at fault.
As you may have seen, there is much more to cleaning and we could spend hours on so many background cases where the cleaning is handled by, not only untrained cleaners but also by untrained management. This costs in terms of lost wages and fines, lost time and manpower, serious health issues (acute and chronic long term problems) and considerable costs in replacing damaged surface materials.
What to do next:
Contact Futureclean Assured Systems for an in-depth, no obligation discussion in the strictest confidence. We will give you a full and frank analysis of what is required from us and what we can do for you.
We also offer bespoke training courses for solicitors and legal assistants in all aspects of cleaning as a component part of case preparation.
11th January 2018