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Cleaning Industry Benefits from Color Coding

ashkin, stephen, ashkin groupMany facilities are now implementing a number of programs to help reduce the amount of energy, water, fuel, and other resources that they use. If structural, mechanical, or similar changes must be made to decrease consumption, managers often turn to outside engineers and contractors to help with implementation.

However, one group of people is often overlooked when it comes to operating facilities in a greener and more sustainable manner, and interestingly, these people may know the facility far better than anyone else. The people I am referring to are none other than the custodial workers who clean large and small facilities—office buildings, schools, hotels—every day.

We are finding in the professional cleaning industry that the role of the cleaning worker has changed and grown significantly in the past 25 years. The following timetable shows what has evolved:

  • For decades, the focus of cleaning workers was the appearance of the facility—that it should look clean, floors should be shiny, etc.
  • Then about 15 years ago, many in the industry as well as public health experts and building managers began to realize there was a direct connection between the health of building users and how well the building was maintained. Proper cleaning helps remove pathogens that can cause disease.
  • While it had been discussed for years, it was not until the mid-2000s that green cleaning moved to center stage in the industry.
  • Today we are witnessing the next stage in the evolution of professional cleaning: Cleaning workers are taking greater responsibility for helping to make buildings more sustainable and, in so doing, reduce operating costs and improve efficiencies. Color-coding systems can help with this.

Color and Cleaning

Color coding has played a significant role in the professional cleaning industry for quite some time. While no one knows exactly how or where it started in cleaning, it probably began some 20 or more years ago in medical facilities where color-coding schemes are used to indicate potentially dangerous items and to help protect staff and patient health.

In the professional cleaning industry, color coding is a way of telling workers what product or process is to be used where. The goal is “mistake-proofing” cleaning, and in an industry where English is increasingly a second language, this is becoming more and more necessary.

An example of color coding in cleaning would be the following:

  • Red color-coded items would identify those cleaning supplies (cloths, mops, chemicals, tools, etc.) designated for use only in restrooms for cleaning toilets, urinals, floors, etc.
  • Green color-coded items would identify those supplies used for cleaning foodservice areas.
  • Yellow color-coded products would be used to clean sinks and counters.
  • Blue color-coded cleaning items would be used to clean low-risk areas such as office desks, tabletops, and surfaces in common areas.

Color and Sustainability

We can also apply colors to help identify what electronics, mechanicals, and other power-using systems can be turned off when a building is not in use and over the weekend, and this is where custodial workers come in. Not only are they intimately aware of the facilities they maintain, they are typically the last ones in facilities at the close of business.

So what would a color-coding system for sustainability look like?

Managers and custodial workers would first identify all power sources and power-using systems throughout the facility such as lights, monitors, copiers, computers, printers, HVAC systems, and refrigerated vending machines, all of which are often left on at the end of the workday. A small but noticeable “dot” would be placed on these power-using items indicating, for example, the following:

  • Red: A red dot placed on power sources, specific appliances, and other electrical devices would tell cleaning professionals and building users that these should be turned off at the end of the workday or when the facility is not being used.
  • Green: A green dot on a power source or electrical device would indicate the item should be left on at all times. This could apply to certain—but not all—computers, for example, or security lighting, etc.
  • Blue: A blue dot would indicate that cleaning professionals or building users must ask facility managers or administrators whether a power source or device should be turned off or left alone at the end of the workday.
  • Yellow: A yellow dot would indicate that a power source or device should be turned on or off only by building management or specific administrators. Many times, these are items controlled by timers that will automatically turn them on or off at designated times.

Measuring Results

Earlier we mentioned that the first step in implementing a sustainability color-coding system is to identify power sources/usage. This can prove insightful because managers are not always sure exactly where power is being used until they try to reduce consumption.

An example of this occurred in a relatively new building designed for a special honors program at the University of Indiana. The building, which opened in 2008, was designed to exceed current energy efficiency requirements. However, tests using a Web-based sustainability dashboard system, which helps facilities better manage and monitor resource consumption, indicated energy consumption in the facility was far higher than anticipated.

To find out why this was occurring, building and cleaning professionals toured the entire facility. They discovered that many employees in the building used energy-demanding space heaters at their desks in both summer and winter months because they found the building too cold. Further, often these space heaters were left on after work hours.

The space heaters are obviously a red-dot item (using our example color-coding system). Cleaning workers who find these left on after hours should turn them off. In the University of Indiana building, managers also had to make changes to the facility’s HVAC system to help heat and cool the facility more efficiently. After changes were implemented, using the sustainability dashboard again showed a 40 percent reduction in power consumption, mainly due to the elimination of space heaters and adjustments to the HVAC system.

If color coding for sustainability is the next big role for custodial workers, it is likely to help contribute to another evolution as well: the creation of a “culture of sustainability.” This is when everyone in a facility—building users, cleaning workers, even venders—plays a role in making the building Greener and more sustainable…which can have widespread implications in helping to reduce consumption and protect natural resources.

Stephen P. Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in Greening the cleaning industry, and CEO of Sustainability Dashboard Tools, which offers a cloud-based dashboard that allows organizations to measure, report and improve their sustainability efforts. He is also coauthor of both The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies

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