The coronavirus has changed how we clean, disinfect, and sanitize the workplace

This article is an update to our bkm guide “Post-COVID Workplace: Return to Work Safely.”

For months, it was clear where our worries lay about the COVID-19 pandemic. In every store, hand sanitizer, soap, and disinfectant wipes were all hard to come by. Even now—more than 6 months after shelter-in-place orders began—it’s not uncommon to find these items still missing or running out by the end of the day at your neighborhood Target or Walmart.

Thus, the coronavirus altered our general definition of cleanliness. Our concerns moved beyond dirt and grime to tackle dangerous germs and bacteria. This physical concern impacts us mentally and emotionally. Companies are working to transition people back into a workplace environment . . . and this means the ways in which they clean, disinfect, and sanitize must also change. Their methods must become more transparent to earn employee trust. First, let’s simplify the complexity around what it means to have a “clean office.”

As new scientific discoveries are made around virus transmission, we’ll continue to add to our knowledge about what can stop the virus from spreading. But after more than a century of using internal labs to rigorously test our products, we can share what we know right now by helping to define some commonly used (and misused) terms.

Cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing are not the same thing

  1. Cleaning removes germs, dirt, and impurities from surfaces or objects with soap (or detergent) and water. Cleaning does not necessarily kill germs but lowers their numbers and the risk of spreading infection.
  2. Disinfecting uses chemicals (for example, EPA-registered disinfectants) to kill germs on surfaces. It does not necessarily clean dirty surfaces or remove germs, but by killing germs on a surface after cleaning, it can lower the risk of spreading infection.
  3. Sanitizing lowers the number of germs on surfaces or objects to a safe level. This process either cleans or disinfects surfaces and objects to lower the risk of spreading infection.

Cleaning products used to eliminate stains may not always be effective disinfectants, and vice versa.

A Broad Range of Choices for a Clean Office

One silver lining here is that a new dialogue is opening up between manufacturers and facility managers. Information about how to safely clean materials used in a variety of furniture applications has always been included in accompanying brochures or manuals. These detailed descriptions can be too easily set aside until they’re needed.

Surface material cleaning experts suggest that, just as we check the labels on our clothes before washing them, we should also check the cleaning guidelines for fabrics and surfaces in the workplace and use the method that is the least likely to cause damage while still being effective. Now that the spotlight is on infection control, this information still accompanies each product, but it’s also becoming more user-friendly and there’s a renewed focus on a mutually-beneficial back-and-forth conversation between materials experts and the people taking care of workplaces around the world.

In addition to considering how to clean existing products, organizations are considering what materials they should add in the future. The good news is offices are not limited to just a few options that may feel very clinical, just because they need to clean and disinfect with a bleach cleanable product.

“There’s worry from customers and designers that in order to provide more materials that are cleanable with a disinfectant, the pendulum will swing too far and environments will shift to feeling sterile,” says Kari Miller, Steelcase surface materials product manager. “But that doesn’t have to be the case. There is already a broad range of designs from Steelcase, Designtex and our partners — hundreds of options in textiles, hard and soft surfaces and other materials that can be cleaned and disinfected without degrading the surface.”

Beyond cleaning and disinfection, another common question is about antimicrobial additives. It’s important to note: antimicrobials do not translate to virus protection and are not always recommended.

What Are Antimicrobials?

The term antimicrobial indicates a property or function of a material that kills or inhibits the growth or action of microorganisms which include bacteria, fungi and viruses. Antimicrobials can come from an inherent material attribute, physical structure or chemical additive. Antimicrobials can target specific groups of microorganisms (e.g. antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral), specific members of a group, or may act more broadly.

Known antimicrobial technologies currently available for fabrics and surfaces have not been proven to combat or inhibit viruses such as the coronavirus. Some customers do require antimicrobial additives and, as a result, we have options available for high-touch surfaces such as seating fabrics and work surface laminates.

Advancements are being made in antimicrobial additives and technologies, and material manufacturers including Designtex are constantly evaluating new findings and technology. Whether an organization chooses antimicrobials or not, the best way to reduce the risk of spreading infections is to clean and disinfect all surfaces and remind people to wash their hands (see CDC recommendations).

While materials have always been rigorously tested for cleaning, they haven’t always been tested for disinfection. The coronavirus has accelerated testing of how materials and products react to disinfecting solutions. Our test lab is up and running, so that materials experts can learn and share more about what is compatible and what is not.

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