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June 17, 2004

ARCHIVE: Custodians


Rex Walker

Rex Walker travels North America training custodians on his cleaning methods. (Ky Plaskon)

School districts from New Jersey to California are looking for new methods to clean schools. Los Angeles has tried various methods from getting kids to volunteer as janitors to starting a hotline for reporting messes and has asked each district to come up with cleaning strategies. In Nevada's Washoe County School District a janitor says it's a problem in many public places not just schools and he's set out to solve it. KNPR's Ky Plaskon Reports.

SOUND: Sneezing, eating

PLASKON: At the Tahoe-Reno International Airport travelers are eating and sneezing . . . seemingly oblivious to germs.

SOUND: I Love Lucy slot machine

SOUND: Lobby Background noise

PLASKON: Nearby a gambler isn't worried about picking up germs from punching buttons on a slot machine that hundreds of travelers have fingered before him.

WALKER: Nobody cares about germs, because they want to win.

PLASKON: Rex Walker cares. He's standing nearby, waiting for a flight.

WALKER: This is where the colds, the germs. This is where they are caught. This is where they are spread. You want to get them at their source and this is definitely a source point, yes.

PLASKON: He explains there should, however, be a lot of concern across the nation regarding cleaning methods, cleaning methods that for the most part are 50 years old. Custodians are shown the cleaning supplies and told to clean however they wish. It doesn't take long for walker to find good intentions to clean gone bad. A custodian passes by, sweeping the lobby with a sanitary cart that's also set up to clean bathrooms. Walker points out the rags on it.

WALKER: You take a rag and you have used it in a restroom or maybe you just got on shift and the last shift used it in a restroom and they used it in a toilett or a urinal, now you are going to take that and clean a door nob or a wall surface and someone is going to come up and put their hand on a wall surface that has been cleaned with a cloth that was used to clean a toilette. That is cross contamination.

SOUND: Bathroom

PLASKON: He finds a no-good mop.

WALKER: Notice in here in this bathroom in the airport there is a cotton string mop that is a good mop for taking a dirty floor and smearing the dirt around in it.

PLASKON: Among public facilities with similar GRIMY habits he says are schools. 20 years ago Walker, a sociologist by education, started as a custodian in the Washoe County School District with a mission to clean up the act.

WALKER: I wanted to do something different because I really felt I had an obligation to the parents and the teachers and the students to clean up their environment.

PLASKON: But it's a daunting task. Custodians are responsible for cleaning thousands of square feet of high-traffic bathrooms, offices, hallways, lunchrooms, you name it - with no formal methods or guidance. Walker tried really hard to get it all done.

WALKER: I started really early in my career when I was a night custodian, really looking at time management and the study of time and motion and all that kind of stuff.

PLASKON: From the triggering of a squirt bottle, wiping of a rag, dragging of a vacuum and the time it took to constantly change tools for each task, he did find a way to standardize.

WALKER: I wouldn't do all this starting and stopping and switching tools because every time I did I would loose time, motivation and concentration.

PLASKON: But then Walker was promoted and for the next 16 years he dropped the mission to revolutionize cleaning and supervised other custodians. When the district faced budget problems five years ago, custodians became a target for budget cuts. Walker saw it as his big break, taking 6 months to study 20 schools and follow 40 custodians. Taking notes and reverting to his study of time and motion. Walker developed a revolution in cleaning for the district and presented it to the board: Process Cleaning. The district went for it and over three years Process Cleaning blossomed. Walker says before Process Cleaning now each custodian was responsible for 24 thousand square feet with no real direction on how to do it. Process Cleaning gives them directions on little cards.

WALKER: By the end of the week they have not only cleaned their area, they have deep cleaned their area. They do it in increments so it is not intimidating for them anymore.

PLASKON: Now each custodian is cleaning an average of 32-thousand square feet, 25 percent higher productivity than in the past. Under Process Cleaning, custodians are also operating state-of-the-art mobile backpack vacuum cleaners and micro-fiber mops and rags instead of the old cotton ones that Walker says just spread germs around.

WALKER: With a micro-fiber cleaning cloth, it is 1-thousand times thinner than a human hair, the fabric that they are made out of and it actually reaches out and pierces bacterium and they will lay there and bleed to death but its full of millions and millions of triangulated fingers so it actually can reach out and pick up the bacterium and remove it from the surface of sinks and privacy panels.

PLASKON: Also under Process Cleaning every task and tool is color coded for the type of cleaning like bathrooms vs. door handles. Standardizing the process has been tried before. What makes Walker's process unique is simplicity, with just a week of training and four note cards in hand custodians are doing a better job Walker says. But what's really different than in the past is that there is a management component to check custodian's work. Having developed the system Walker now considers himself not only a good custodian, but a good financial custodian. Janitorial productivity is now so high the district is saving an average of 10-thousand dollars per school a year in custodial staff reductions. As if cleaner schools and more money aren't enough, Walker also claims Process Cleaning has increased student attendance rates 5 percent because they get sick less often. School administrators, however, credit a tough new attendance policy. Nonetheless at the schools there is no question Process Cleaning has a noticeable impact.

SOUND: Clanking of flagpole, up and under. Opening door, fade to children inside

SOUND: Kids inside children outside and clank of tetherball.

PLASKON: At the top of a hill, overlooking a desert neighborhood of mobile homes and trailers north of Reno is the concrete block Edward Bennet Elementary. Children are getting lunch and taking it outside where they sit in the shade, eat and play tetherball.

SOUND: Kids playing tether ball. Teacher says: Have a good lunch, don't forget to throw away your trash.

PLASKON: Teacher Lee Post is supervising them. She says the school is cleaner because of the new process.

POST: I think that if you walk the halls of our building we look pretty new still and yet we are 6 years old.

PLASKON: And usually a school would look dirty by now?

POST: You bet, you bet.

PLASKON: Parent Christina Simmons walks the halls of rhe school every so often. She says she has spied the new supplies custodians are using and credits the new process with her children being sick less often.

SIMMONS: I haven't noticed a mess and so that says something is being done right.

PLASKON: And in the past there were more infections?

SIMMIONS: Ya the girls were sicker last year for sure. I have three little ones and I haven't had hardly and just colds this year and so maybe that did make a difference.

SOUND: School Bell rings

PLASKON: As students leave on this last day of the school year, custodians are poised for the most intense purge in Process Cleaning.

SOUND: Cleaning classroom.

PLASKON: Despite the success of Process Cleaning, 9 months ago the district asked private contractors for bids on cleaning. Walker remembers the result.

WALKER: We beat them hands down. They might have been able to save a couple of dollars but they had no quality control, they had no method for their cleaning, they had promises, that's all they had and the savings was so minimal, it was much better to keep control of our employees and know that our kids are around safe and responsible custodians.

PLASKON: These days Rex Walker isn't around as much anymore.

SOUND: Airport lobby.

PLASKON: Back at the airport he admits it's been slow going getting the word out about his new cleaning method. But he's traveling around the country giving training sessions to custodians. The districts reimburse the Washoe County School District for his salary. Last week he was on his way to Canada to train 80 custodians. He's also trained school employees in San Diego and Bakersfield. He thinks Process Cleaning could become the national standard based on the number of calls he gets form school districts. And Walker's conscience is cleaner these days, knowing he's achieving the goal he set out with 20 years ago - to clean. Really clean.

Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR

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