Social equity - time for respect

13th of October 2022
Social equity - time for respect

"The pandemic demonstrated the lack of decency and respect the service industry has shown workers,” a journalist for a newspaper in the US wrote recently. It has become clear Covid-19 has disproportionately harmed the most vulnerable workers, many of them cleaners. Now there are calls to promote better social equity across the world. Doug Gatlin, ceo of Green Seal in the US, writes for ECJ.

The pandemic impacted the service industry - and this includes professional cleaning workers - extremely hard in both Europe and North America. In March 2020, businesses in one facility after another announced closing their buildings and switching their staff to working remotely.

With buildings closed, there was little need for cleaning. Professional cleaning workers were laid off in many parts of the world. The US was particularly hit hard.  By April 2020, the (US) Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that the national unemployment rate had reached nearly 15 per cent. Just one month before, it was only 4.4 per cent, making this the most significant single-month jump in more than 50 years.

Fortunately, several countries in Europe took steps to help businesses address this situation. Many offered loans to help prevent companies from collapsing, others allowed businesses to defer payments, and programmes were also announced to help those workers directly impacted by the virus, many of who had lost their jobs.

Now, while the virus is still with us, businesses and facilities in Europe have reopened.  As this happened, building service contractors began calling back their workers. Unexpectedly, they ran into an issue that was not anticipated: many of these workers did not want to come back.

Making matters worse, some contractors in both Europe and North America are now reporting their businesses are booming, but they are finding it hard to secure either their old staff or hire new workers. There simply are not enough people interested in cleaning positions to replace the old staff.

Some blamed this on the relief programmes extended to workers during the worst of the pandemic.  But “on the surface, this assessment seems valid”, writes Sophia Meador in The Daily Iowan, a University of Iowa (US) newspaper. “After all, if Covid is now less of a risk, things should return to normal, which means service workers should go back to work.”

Lack of decency

However, a closer look at the situation shows something much more revealing: many of these workers do not want to return to industries, including the professional cleaning industry, that they believe have not shown them enough respect, the vital work they perform, or their health.

These are the workers who must clean potentially contaminated and health-risking surfaces every day. In so doing, they frequently find building users do not comply with a building’s common-area mask mandates. These mandates are all too often viewed as optional and not a Covid-preventing obligation. The same is true of social distancing guidelines.

“The pandemic demonstrated the lack of decency and respect the service industry has (shown) workers,” concludes Meador. “From this perspective, how could anyone blame previous service workers for not reentering an industry with (so little) regard for their health and safety?”

This is where green cleaning and the use of green-certified cleaning products come into the picture. We know that many building owners and managers have transferred to green-certified cleaning products and procedures over the past three decades.

One of the many reasons for this was research indicating the potential negative impact traditional cleaning solutions can have on custodial workers, especially when it comes to asthma. For instance, one 2021 study on the increased use of disinfectants among consumers during the pandemic reported: “The increased use of disinfectant wipes and disinfecting liquids was significantly related to poorer asthma control. These findings are consistent with previous studies conducted primarily in occupational (work) settings showing increased exposure to disinfectants related to increased asthma symptoms”

Another 2021 study pointed out: “There is consistent evidence of increased respiratory symptoms in occupational cleaners worldwide. We evaluated a broad range of respiratory health effects and estimated a 50 per cent increased risk of asthma and 43 per cent (increased risk) of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease among occupational cleaners.

The researchers further reported: “No evidence for a typical allergic respiratory phenotype emerged, suggesting that continuous exposure to irritant agents (such as cleaning chemicals) might cause both reversible and irreversible airway obstruction.”

Chemical exposure

As to causes and why this may be happening, many public health officials believe it may be, among other reasons, because of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released when using traditional cleaning solutions. Many past studies support this conclusion and have linked exposure to chemicals used in cleaning solutions to cause occupational asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Aware of earlier studies like this, many building owners and managers did transfer to green-certified cleaning solutions. However, we cannot ignore the fact that several have also taken these steps primarily because they know it is good for business.

Green buildings have proven to be able to attract more and better tenants and retain them for longer. The value of their buildings is enhanced and building owners and managers can often demand higher rents to boot.

But with the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been growing calls for organisations to address social justice issues. Over the past year, it has become clear the pandemic has disproportionately harmed more vulnerable populations in Europe and North America, many of whom are cleaning workers, as the first study points out.

The pandemic, however also offers building owners and managers an opportunity to promote social equity for the often-invisible frontline cleaning and building service workers. These are the people who not only may have more risk of being infected with Covid - and a host of other diseases - but who often endure excessive exposure to potentially hazardous chemicals. Further, they may lack the protection, training, and support they need to safeguard their own health while working to protect the health of building occupants.

One way to address this situation is by using green-certified cleaning products. These products have been independently tested, verifying they meet specific guidelines and standards. This helps ensure they better protect the health of cleaning workers and, at the same time, reduce cleaning’s impact on the environment.

Taking this step is not only the right thing to do and good for business, but it also shows cleaning workers they are respected and that the facility in which they work is concerned about their health. This is long overdue. As difficult as the pandemic has been, this may be one of the few benefits derived from this challenging period.


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