What’s Under Your Feet?

Key role flooring plays in the comfort and health of people and the performance of the indoor built environment.

There’s usually a combination of factors converging to create indoor environment risk.   As workplaces endeavour to promote conditions for the most positive, affective functioning of its inhabitants – people’s ability to work well is affected by all manner of conditions, esp. anything  uncomfortable, distracting, hazardous or noxious.   So a holistic approach is required (multiple control measures) to counter risks (and basically, some controls are far more effective over others, at preventing risk.)

Most hygiene professionals, e.g. healthcare, aged care groups so on and so forth, monitor and measure ‘elimination’ or ‘design-type’ controls when they consider a best solution; and it is really no different for carpets and flooring…..

Environment & IAQ:  Put Science into Practice

You might be surprised to learn how much flooring affects (is affected by) certain elements in a workplace? Environmental aspects such as temperature & thermal comfort, sensory changes (variability), noise, ergonomics, human activities and crowding, indoor air quality (IAQ) plus many more factors come into play.

Further exacerbated by choice of flooring materials used in that building, along with a company’s existing hygiene and maintenance program adopted to manage it.

In an earlier Blog here,  HBS shared a fair amount of information for people on typical hazards perpetuated by indoor built environments.

How and why sound hygiene practices were so crucial from health and well-being, risk management perspective, as with keeping hygiene policies and procedures updated.

Immediately upon entering a building, whether a hospital, aged care, school etc – can’t you gauge the quality of flooring, degree of upkeep and sanitation in the facility? Similar principles apply – ultimately all this relates to safety. Focus on flooring helps organisations reap collateral benefits in support of people’s productivity and enhance their health and wellness.

Floor Hygiene: Just what are you getting?   

Risks from wet, damp or drying floors can’t be underestimated – aside from primary reason of slips and falls, the manner in which workplaces sanitise their flooring has far more serious (broader) impact upon the indoor built environment.

Soft, Hard Floor Hygiene & Maintenance

Workplace floors should be cleaned regularly, using suitable methods that will maintain the most appropriate level of hygiene across that particular surface/environment. What equipment is being used on your job?  Are staff knowledgeable? Fully trained? How regularly is Maintenance Schedule questioned or challenged?  What of the adherence to HVAC guidelines? Hospital guidelines?

And what we are dealing with here is an unregulated carpet industry – even existing standards AS/NZS 3733/1995 soft flooring (carpets) were written as way back as 1995. 

Quite a number of independent carpet cleaning teams out there, who aren’t informed about interplay of soft/hard flooring and risk in the workplace. Or they simply don’t care enough. Effectively because they’re only “carpet shampooers” – and very one dimensional in their approach. Often lacking the appropriate environmental hygiene knowledge or capability to successfully negate one issue properly…..let alone the future risks the workplace might be facing, from that initial problem.

Improper | inadequate cleaning practices fail to remove dirt and contaminants, overuse of polish or cleaning chemicals leaves residue and can make floors dangerous. Sadly those sort of operators only typically compound a problem.

Part 1 Unnecessary carpet chemical residue seeps out of carpet… NB All we added here was clean, cold water – look at this.

Part 2 After 5 mins dwell time, residual chemicals sinks into carpet and this a person never sees; why carpets tend to re-soil fast and attract dirt easily.

Somewhat of a similar scenario when a person is shampooing their hair.

Whether the person places a 10 cent amount (dime) or uses a stack more than that… it still takes what it takes to wash your hair. Anything over this amount is wasteful, and leaves your shower recess with chemicals all over it; pretty bad for the environment too.

And what do many carpet cleaners do? They feel their only solution is to throw yet more chemicals at the problem. Doesn’t make sense – won’t make the floor any cleaner – prob. just damage it further over the long run. Same goes for people resorting to using masking agents on their carpets. If we all walked around wearing same clothes for months, without washing them, yes they would feel gritty and stiff too (like crunchy cardboard on us.)

Floor textiles need to be washed and sanitized properly and regularly – they really are no different.

Another compounding problem (going out on a limb here) to say we think it is a bit of an institutional issue…. with Tender process left, front and centre in that.

Most Tenders do not look past cost; and businesses ultimately get what they pay for. When specific control measures aren’t clearly outlined in a Tender (ie. that your business or department expects a holistic approach to its hygiene, specific sanitizing, decontaminating of its flooring (and for the HVAC or that matter), company is probably asking for trouble.

When the Tender reads “shampoo carpets” then that’s all you will get…. Cheap operators across an unregulated industry, paid a pittance, using far too many chemicals unnecessarily, and not worried about the impact of their actions on either your workplace or its occupants.

Anyone can buy a cleaning company franchise these days, be given two weeks’ training but just how much real training does someone get in two weeks? What process will they use on your flooring? If they dry clean it, this could well impact on the currency of manufacturer’s warranty? Ask them too, if they are even insured?

Role Good Design Plays in a Workplace

Good workplace design is key and flooring choice plays its part in this.

Each indoor built environment comes with its own set of considerations and challenges (one floor material choice might be perfect for a particular space but prove a nightmare problem in another).

Usually comes down to choice as people oscillate between form and function. That said, some indoor settings contain levels of pollutants some two to five times higher (occasionally up to x100) than outdoor levels?   Indoor air pollution sources incl. combustion, building materials and flooring, once again a culprit….    Along with maintenance practices, furnishings, household cleaning products, heating & cooling system hygiene, level of moisture and humidification.

Design elements radically transform a workplace in ways that benefit not only your business, but teams, clients many other stakeholders in that supply chain.  But failure to consider how the work is done, results in not only poor risk management, but lost opportunities to innovate and improve the effectiveness and efficiency of work.

Choice of Flooring?

Often capital investments are made on flooring types; without real consideration into a plethora of factors accompanying that investment (future hygiene, being one of these.)  Choice being loosely made upon recommendations of interior designers, architects etc

New flooring is all very wonderful when its new but go and put 1000 people across that flooring and the whole dynamics radically change!

So how often is flooring choice made by those people who have limited knowledge about the upkeep and hygiene required on that floor? Or the technology and equipment required to service it, what sort of resistance to mould is required. Do they even comprehend how people will behave there once indoors? What about future maintenance? Understand how a business aims to sanitise it to be able to extend that floor’s life?

When flooring doesn’t perform? What happens then?

Well, preferred route for many facilities managers is to rip it up – replace, replace, replace being the number one option.

Many are ripping up their carpets; sometimes as young as five years old and still under warranty, because they look or smell bad, or perform poorly.

Chances are, very next round of flooring gets treated in much the same way.  Not very environmental, is it?

Landfill statistics are staggering. In the USA, 89% of old stale carpets go to landfill, 6% are incinerated and 5% recycled. Put plainly, that is about 4B pounds per year going to landfill.  In Australia we aren’t much better either. Estimations put our soft flooring to just over 2.5% of our landfill.

Such poor outcomes (landfill / pollution aside) really are unnecessary, when all it takes is a phone call to a professional environmental hygiene group to get them out and to sanitise and treat the carpet, reinstating it back to its former condition.

Key thing here to remember here? Not always the flooring that is under-performing – more so the maintenance practices and hygiene approach to treating those carpets / floors:

Fig 3. Principles of Good Work Design. Source: safeworkaustralia.gov.au/good-work-design

Green Building Link

Probably has been more technological advancements occurring in flooring industry over just about any other industry: new products, R&D methods, styling and installation technologies. Altering so fast, difficult for maintenance, hygiene managers or engineers to keep up.

And not only materials changing, so too attitudes, in relation to flooring.

Linked to Green building; green movement push elevates workplace hygiene agendas. Facility managers constantly assess their options in terms of floor coverings and maintenance of those – as the look for better alternatives.

As many remain concerned about critical factors (neighbour rating, green building council) rarely do they look sufficiently inwards, into real depth on true management of their flooring assets (hygiene, costs, assessing the longevity, water consumption and power use, cleaning fluids applied etc)

Assurances on Flooring

Everyone wants a worry-free workplace, healthier IAQ, reduced risk to worker health & safety, less downtime, fewer injuries or illnesses, notwithstanding higher degrees of worker productivity fueling those better business outcomes.

There’s some solid courses of action to take.

First understand different flooring choices available, evaluate these; don’t be too swayed by price either (…if it is too good to be true, usually means it won’t fare well.)  Sampling is smart, so is knowing traffic patterns. High traffic areas require a different carpet or hard flooring product.  Check for a Certification. Vinyl floors with industry certifications tend to emit lower levels of volatile organic compounds (substances/ off-gassers which can result in health problems and/or pollute the environment.)

An assurance on whatever flooring you are considering, ensure it hails from ‘responsibly managed forests’ because that’s a bonus for our planet.

Check the wood’s product packaging, ensure flooring comes with a decent manufacturer’s warranty too. Classically, a 7-year or 10/15-year warranty but remember, for the cover to be current, organisations have to manage flooring in accordance with specs of their Manufacturer’s warranty.

Hard flooring, not as economical or as sustainable as you might think

Hard floors cost serious money to maintain over the long run; usually four (4) times more labour intensive to manage. Dirt hibernates in timber crevices, and is quite difficult to clean thoroughly unless your service company knows what they are doing.

Hard floors won’t last as long nor provide protection against falls or be as insulative or be as noise reducing as carpets either.

Sure, we know, wood is the most widely-adopted, aesthetic flooring of choice right now….ask yourself this: will it stand up to the assault? We regularly encounter companies who consider replacing their wood floors some 12 months after purchase, because of non-performance. Really isn’t sustainable for a business to be doing this over and over again.

Integrated Approach to Floor Hygiene.

We all know indoor environments exert significant influence on our well-being, productivity and quality of life.

Workplace health and understanding of this has evolved; so too must hygiene practices.  Professional companies (who know what they’re doing) adopt a life-cycle approach to not only flooring, but all the other indoor built environment considerations).