Color Means Clean

Color-coding in the cleaning industry is not a new idea, but it has seen a resurgence in popularity recently, particularly in health- and food-related markets. There are two big reasons for the renewed interest: Illnesses caused by cross-contamination have been making headlines, and the language barrier in the janitorial industry continues to widen.

“Color-coded cleaning is a growing trend because it allows for companies to easily distinguish and identify which products should be used in which areas of a facility,” says Alan Neufeld, vice president of sales for Hill & Markes Inc. in Amsterdam, New York.

Facilities should switch to a color-coded system if they operate in an environment where cross-contamination poses a safety risk to the public, or if their cleaning staffs includes nonnative English speakers, says Neufeld. By that measure, the system is clearly a good fit for healthcare, foodservice and education facilities. An argument can also be made, however, for commercial properties, hospitality facilities and others. 

“There’s really no market you can’t use it in,” says William Hill, regional sales manager for Penn Jersey Paper in Philadelphia.

 

The Nuts and Bolts

The concept of a color-coded system is simple — cloths, mops, brushes and other tools are marked with different colors, each representing a specific use. By clearly delineating certain products for certain areas, workers are less likely to spread germs around.

“The whole idea is to assign a color to a specific application, whether it’s cleaning glass and mirrors or wiping down tables,” says Hill. “You can even color-code it to a specific section of your facility.”

Although color-coded products have been around for years, they are still a relatively recent addition to the decades-old janitorial industry. As such, there isn’t yet a standard system for how to use the various colors.


“Color-coding systems can vary by environment and application,” says Neufeld. “It’s my experience that color-coding is instituted and established at the end users’ discretion.”

Although there aren’t established cleaning-industry standards for where to use each color, there are some commonly accepted norms: Blue is for general purpose cleaning for low-risk areas, such as mirrors; green is used in general food processing, serving and bar areas; red is reserved for high-risk areas, including toilets, urinals and floors; yellow and orange are for back-of-house cleaning and washroom surfaces; and black or gray are for front-of-house cleaning.

 

In foodservice facilities, sections of the building may be broken in to separate colors. For example, in a grocery store, red is for meat departments, blue for seafood, yellow for bakery and green for produce.

Of all the colors, blue, green, red and yellow are the most common. There is, however, one more color, which doesn’t get regular use but shows signs of becoming a major player: Purple is typically used in food settings to indicate the presence of allergens. It’s available on a number of tools, including kitchen staples like cutting boards and knives.
“It’s fairly new, but in this day and age, when everyone has an allergy, I think it will be popular,” says Hill says. “For food-service operations that want to keep liability down, you can recommend a food allergen kit, which will have purple tools for prep areas to distinguish and keep allergens separate.”

Far more common than kitchen goods are color-coded microfiber cloths. Experts say these cleaning cloths are becoming standard across markets, replacing cotton and other materials.

“Microfiber has the ability to clean and wipe the surface and get even microscopic-size materials off the surface,” says Phil Carrizales, director of the jan/san division for Acme Paper Supply in Savage, Maryland.
“It’s fairly new, but in this day and age, when everyone has an allergy, I think it will be popular,” says Hill says. “For food-service operations that want to keep liability down, you can recommend a food allergen kit, which will have purple tools for prep areas to distinguish and keep allergens separate.”

Far more common than kitchen goods are color-coded microfiber cloths. Experts say these cleaning cloths are becoming standard across markets, replacing cotton and other materials.

“Microfiber has the ability to clean and wipe the surface and get even microscopic-size materials off the surface,” says Phil Carrizales, director of the jan/san division for Acme Paper Supply in Savage, Maryland.

Health Issue
The renewed interest in color-coding systems has largely been triggered by frequent news stories about illnesses in hospitals, schools, restaurants and the like. Sickness can spread through cross-contamination, when an infected person touches something and then a janitor picks up the virus or bacteria on a cloth or mop and transfers it from area to area while cleaning.

Color-coded wipes and tools dramatically reduce this problem by containing contagions. For example, restrooms may represent only 5 percent of a building’s space, Neufeld says, but they can house 80 percent of the germs.

“Do you want to mop the floor in the patient room where they just used that same tool to mop the bathroom floor?” says Neufeld. “People are supposed to clean their tools and put them away properly, but that doesn’t actually happen in many cases. You need to make sure your people are doing the right thing, and color-coding helps with consistency.”

Although cross-contamination can occur in any facility, it’s of particular concern in the healthcare industry. High-profile incidents of hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) have resulted in a big push to use color-coding as one method for controlling the spread of infection through cross-contamination.

The other major reason for the recent popularity of color-coded products is the increase of janitorial workers who speak English as their second language.

“With the diverse workforce we have, it bridges the language barrier,” says Carrizales. “Instead of having to remember 30 or 40 different things, you can just say, ‘This area is red and this area is blue.’” 

In addition to simplifying the cleaning process by labeling products by color, there are wall charts for janitorial closets and flip cards for janitorial carts that reinforce the process with simple visual cues. For example, next to a dispenser with four chemicals, a manager might hang a chart with very basic drawings to indicate where each color-coded chemical is used, such as a mirror for the blue cleaner. Then, the janitor’s cart could have illustrated flip cards for how to use each tool and with which chemicals. 


“Color-coding creates a universal language that can cross cultures and be understood in a simple clear manner,” says Neufeld.


Cost of Color

With such clear benefits, why hasn’t everyone switched to color-coded products? 

Cost is a common complaint. Prices for color-coded microfiber cloths and other tools are typically no different than their traditional counterparts. But switching to a truly color-coded system requires buying multiples of every product to have sets in each color, which can represent a large cash outlay at the start.

Although it may cost a bit to start, Neufeld says smart operations can use color-coded products to distinguish between divisions or functional areas. 

Perhaps the biggest argument for making the switch is guarding against a potentially disastrous (and expensive) public-relations nightmare. The average cost to a healthcare facility for an HAI is $18,000–20,000, and insurance won’t cover those costs, says Carrizales.

“A small investment of several thousands to prevent a cost of tens of thousands per person per incident is a no-brainer,” he says.

A flu outbreak or food-poisoning incident in a healthcare facility, school, restaurant or any other building can have hard costs, such as absenteeism and lost productivity, or intangible costs, such as bad press and a damaged reputation.

“With the social interaction on the Internet today, everyone has something to say,” says Carrizales. “If one person gets sick because of poor cleaning practices, the next thing you know, all of their friends know about it. Damage to name recognition can destroy a business.”

If a facility can’t afford to immediately change out all products to color-coded versions, Hill suggests phasing in the items. It’s often best to get new microfiber first, since those products are the most used and most affordable. Next, it’s smart to prioritize the tools and chemicals and slowly add them to the mix, he says.