The Green Janitor Crisis

Is your building, school, office, or workplace Green? It may be clean, but that does not mean it is Green. One of the last vestiges of the Green Practices program is the workforce. We now see the Green Agenda being promoted from the administrative level. This is well-intentioned rhetoric, and needed to set the agenda. Secondly, we see Green products being introduced. This is the supply side of the equation. But what about implementation? The janitorial crews remain untrained, unmotivated, and trapped in their ignorance by language barriers. There are three legs to the truly Green Program, and they are Green Agenda, Green Products, and Green Training. Without all three in place, any Green Program is not credible.

You know the smells that tell you that the janitorial service has been through the building. There is the lemon scent of the furniture polish, the ammonia scent of the window cleaner, the metallic scent of newly buffed floors, or the bleach-like smell of the bathrooms that we all accept as an indication that all it clean and sanitary. We believe that these are smells of cleanliness and a healthy environment.

I hate to burst your bubble, but nearly all these smells are harmful to our immediate and long term hearth. The fancy word for what happens in buildings with recirculated air is called “Bioaccumulation.” This means that everything brought into the building is going to be recycled many times over and combined with every other pollutant in the air. We all know the experience of the woman wearing half a bottle of a pungent perfume. You can walk into the front door and know that she was there ten minutes ago. A smelly trash can can stink up the whole office.

In other words, all these smells have far-reaching impact on our daily lives.

Bioaccumulation also includes germs during the flu season lasting from November to March. Every sneeze, wheeze, and cough sprays microscopic droplets into the air to survive long enough to reach everyone in the building.

It is only fair to explain “Outgassing” to you as well, because we know the smell of new carpet, new furniture, new paint, and new wood. Your senses will betray you because we think that anything new is clean and healthy, but that is a huge mistake. The varnishes and additives to paint, carpet glue, and wood fall under the category of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that are not good for you. If your health is comprised, these fumes can worsen your condition and hasten disease. If you are healthy, the long term exposure will wear you down in time.

Think of the dust that is recirculated that contains bacteria, virus, dust mite feces and scales, carbon from the copies, and so much more. It is a wonder that we aren’t sick all the time except that we are generally healthy and able to live in hostile environments for a long time.

The people who are supposed to help clean our facilities and protect our health through sanitizing processes are the janitors, but clean does not mean healthy. The ammonia in the window spray is harmful, the zinc in the floor finish is bad for humans, the numerous chemicals in the cleansers add to a worsening situation.

Right now, there is an effort to replace the products in the janitor closet with more Green products, but this is not a Green Program. It takes more than big talk from the administration to make the workplace healthy again. The people who can make a huge difference are the Green Clean Certified janitorial workers. The people who “Bring the Green” are the least recognized folks in your office. It is very important that any new contracts, bids requirements, or contract renewals contain a Green Practices clause requiring the workforce to go through a bona fide Green Clean certification.

Those who set policy, should be requiring more than Green products. They should be requiring the people entrusted with the public health of our schools, offices, and buildings to be trained as Green Clean Certified agents of change. Only then will the Green Evolution have the impact we all want for the safety of our buildings.

Michael Richmond is the director of the Green Clean Institute, contributor to the Green Clean Compliant blog, and chief adviser for the Green Practices Initiative [].