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Perhaps it’s time to let food service facility managers, operators, and quality control professionals in on a little secret: Mops spread soils which can make floors slippery, unhealthy, and dangerous but properly cleaned floors improve traction, health, and safety.
Cleaning workers and others in the professional cleaning industry have either known or suspected this for decades, but it does not appear that the word has spread up to the C-suite regarding mops. And, if the ultimate goal of professional cleaning is to protect human health, then this little secret can have serious ramifications for all types of facilities, including those in food service.
The use of mops is still prevalent in restaurant cleaning. In fact, in many facilities, including hospitals, schools, hotels, and restaurants, mops and mop buckets are as commonly used as vacuum cleaners, sprayers, and cleaning cloths.
In all fairness, mops are recommended for certain tasks in a food service facility. They are perfect for cleaning up spills or moisture buildup at building entries, both to help prevent a slip-and-fall accident in kitchen areas. But, it is the ongoing use of mops and the cleaning solution in the mop bucket that can potentially cause serious contamination and health risks for food service facilities. This was first made clear in a hospital sanitation study published in Applied Microbiology in 1971. While it was conducted in a hospital setting, the findings can and do apply to any commercial facility, including food service.
The researchers wanted to find out if germs and bacteria that may cause disease can be spread through cleaning. Of central concern were all the tools customarily used to “wet-mop” or clean floors: mops, buckets, and the cleaning solution. Here is what they reported:
Following the demonstration of massive spread of bacterial contamination throughout the hospital by the wet-mopping techniques in use, quantitative studies were undertaken to determine the source of contamination and to institute measures of control. It was found that mops, stored wet, supported bacterial growth to very high levels and could not be adequately decontaminated by chemical disinfection. Laundering and adequate drying provided effective decontamination, but build-up of bacterial counts occurred if mops were not changed daily or if disinfectant was omitted from the wash-water.
In other words, as soon as the mop is used, literally from its first application, it becomes soiled and contaminated. This builds up over time and as it does, the cleaning solution also becomes contaminated. The study did note that the use of a disinfectant can help prevent this. However, as the mop, bucket, and cleaning solution become more and more soiled, what is referred to as the efficacy of the disinfectant—its ability to kill germs and bacteria—begins to diminish. As this happens, the mop begins to spread soils and potentially harmful contaminants.
Before exploring this topic further, a fair question to ask is why is it so important to keep floors hygienically clean? The reason is actually quite simple. We have many more contacts with floors than most people realize. According to Mark Warner, formerly with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, we have as many as 50 direct and indirect contacts with floors everyday. Every time we tie a shoelace, as an example, that has also touched a floor, we have come in indirect contact with the floor. And, if that floor is contaminated—as is often the case during the course of the day—cross-contamination is possible.
This was the key concern in the hospital study discussed earlier and the issues they encountered are reasons why the food service industry should prioritize addressing these risks. Later, we will discuss how food service managers can address this problem.
Other Cleaning Culprits
While the “wet mopping” process is probably highest on the list of cleaning tasks that can spread soils, germs, and bacteria, instead of remove them, mops and buckets are not the only culprits. Another key culprit is cleaning cloths, whether
traditional terry cloth, which is often found in food service operations, or microfiber. Soils and microorganisms build up on them as they are used and eventually can move from one surface to another, potentially spreading harmful germs and bacteria.
For instance, it is not uncommon for custodial workers to clean restroom fixtures with a cleaning cloth that is then used to clean high-touch (frequently and commonly touched) areas, such as light switches, door handles, ledges, railings, etc. One very simple way food service managers can prevent this is to incorporate a color-coding system. A typical color-coded program for cleaning cloths looks something like this:
- Red: restrooms and restroom fixtures,
- Blue: kitchen area surfaces, counters, etc.,
- Yellow: high-touch areas, and
- Green: office desks, office equipment, chairs, office counters, etc.
Taking this a step further, some facilities now use what are termed “smart towels.” “Smart” because not only can they be used in a color-coded cleaning system, but they can also be folded into numbered quadrants. For instance, if sections 1, 2, and 3 have been used, the cleaning worker can fold the towel to quadrant 4, using a clean piece of the towel for each new cleaning task.
Making Floors Hygienically Clean
While it is relatively easy to prevent the spread of contaminants using cleaning cloths, it gets a bit more complicated when it comes to floor cleaning. However, there are ways and means possible.
One option is the use of a new generation of steam vapor machines. These systems heat water to 240 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, which is then pressurized to about 60 pounds of pressure per square inch (psi). The steam vapor can be used to clean floors, surfaces, restroom fixtures, and other areas. And, according to Benjamin Tanner, PhD in microbiology and immunology from the University of Arizona, steam vapor provides “a nontoxic, environmentally friendly way to both clean and disinfect at the same time.”
In a commercial kitchen, steam vapor can be an excellent tool because it melts away grease and oil. However, the key drawbacks with steam vapor cleaning are that it can be a rather slow process and, when used on floors, it may require damp mopping after use to remove residue from the floor. Because our goal is to not use mops, this can be a problem. Further, considerable care must be taken when using steam vapor machines due to the very high heat generated.
There are also different types of hard surface equipment—some use a combination of steam or very hot, pressurized water. Advanced equipment features a vacuum system to recover cleaning solution as the machine is used, while others use a squeegee to move chemicals into a floor drain. Unfortunately, this squeegee process can be problematic because it can spread contaminants from one area to another when performed.
Another option is to use what the International Sanitary Supply Association (ISSA), the worldwide cleaning association, refers to as spray-and-vac or no-touch cleaning systems. These systems inject chemicals onto the floor or surfaces being cleaned. Allowing for a few minutes of dwell time—enough time for the chemicals to effectively loosen and suspend soils—the same areas are then high pressure rinsed. The final step is vacuuming the just cleaned areas with the machine’s built-in wet vac system. While the process seems like it may be time consuming, ISSA reports in its book, 540 Cleaning Times, spray-and-vac systems can be as much as two-thirds faster than traditional cleaning methods, whether used to clean floors or restroom fixtures.
Testing for Results
The use of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) monitoring systems is certainly not new to the commercial food service industry. However, in most commercial kitchens, they are used to test cooking surfaces, tools, and equipment. As we know, while these devices do not indicate specifically that germs and contaminants are present on a surface, a high ATP count can serve as a warning that this might be the case.
Since we now know that soiled, contaminated floors have the potential to spread disease, it is wise for food service managers to also begin using ATP monitors to evaluate their floors. A good practice is to test the floor before cleaning and then after cleaning. This can evaluate the effectiveness of the cleaning process used and if you are still using mops and buckets, conducting an ATP test after cleaning may prove to be a real eye-opener.
Kravitz is a frequent writer for the professional cleaning and building industries. Reach him at Robert@alturasolutions.com.