Wash Away Germs

By Robert Kravitz

A few years ago, a report on the MSN Living Health website noted that gyms and locker rooms were the dirtiest places in a typical school. While the focus of this report was about schools, let’s face it that gyms and locker rooms can become germ-infested, no matter where they are located.    


One of the reasons for this is that these areas—whether in a school, private club, or park and recreation facility—often do not get the proper cleaning attention they need. Caretakers must use the appropriate cleaning solutions, tools, and methods to protect human health, and this is not just referencing steps to eliminate superbugs, such as MRSA.

Common Problems
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus is very serious, causing an estimated 20,000 deaths each year. But it is not the only disease that can possibly be contracted from using a gym locker room. The following are some of the most common—albeit less serious—infections and diseases that can result:   

Candida. This fungus is famous for causing athlete's foot, but is also associated with vaginal yeast infections, as well as jock itch. It is most often found in showers and saunas because these areas are warm and moist.

  • Streptococcal bacteria. There are almost two dozen strains of strep that can cause infection, with the most common upper-respiratory infections and strep throat. Many of these strains are spread in two ways: either direct contact with an infected person or touching a surface contaminated with the bacteria.   
  • Staphylococcus bacteria. Commonly known as “staph,” this most typically causes skin rashes but can result in more severe infections, such as pneumonia, sepsis (that can be very serious), meningitis, and MRSA.   
  • Escherichia Coli. Commonly known as E. coli, this bacterium is associated with gastrointestinal infections. In most cases, it is not serious, but it can be for young children and older adults. 
  • Human Papillomavirus. Many consider HPV a sexually transmitted disease, but that is not the only way it can spread. HPV is best known for causing warts and can be spread by merely walking on the floor of a locker room.  

Prevention And Proper Use Of Cleaners And Disinfectants  
Fortunately, there are ways to help prevent the spread of pathogens and protect the health of locker-room users. The process involves the proper use of cleaning solutions and disinfectants.

Probably the most important thing to remember is that cleaning and disinfecting is not the same thing. 

Many times, when public-health officials are called in after a disease outbreak occurs, they ask how a facility, or in this case, a locker room, is being cleaned. Very often, officials are told a disinfectant is being used. That may be so, but the pathogens that cause disease are not necessarily being eliminated.  

To do this, the surface must be cleaned first. Please be aware of the following to protect the health of those using your facilities:

  • Cleaning removes visible soil and organic matter. 
  • Disinfection “kills” microorganisms and pathogens on a surface that can cause disease.    

Many administrators and cleaning professionals consider the use of a disinfectant the most critical part of the cleaning process. However, it is the cleaning of surfaces that is often most important. Soils and pathogens must be removed first for the disinfectant to work effectively. 

Administrators and cleaning professionals should consider the following when working with disinfectants and using traditional cleaning methods:  

  • Pay close attention to dilution ratios. Further, some disinfectants should be diluted using cold water only.
  • Read the use and safety information provided on the label.
  • Be aware that each disinfectant label will list what are called “kill claims.” These are the types of pathogens the disinfectant is designed to kill. In many cases, a janitorial or maintenance staff does not know what pathogens it is dealing with. In such situations, select a “wide spectrum” disinfectant, which can help eliminate many types of pathogens.  
  • Examine the label to determine how long the disinfectant should remain on the surface before wiping. This is referred to as dwell time and may be up to 10 minutes. In such cases, cleaning professionals should apply the disinfectant to a few surfaces at a time and then return to the first area to wipe clean. However, make sure the disinfectant has not dried. If it has, the entire process must be repeated. 
  • Use one cleaning cloth for cleaning surfaces and another for use with the disinfectant. Keep the cloths separate and change both frequently
  • Be aware of “quat binding.” This happens when the disinfectant is absorbed into the cleaning cloth. When this occurs, the disinfectant will lose its effectiveness. Once again, the best way to prevent quat binding is to change the disinfecting cloths frequently.   
  • Be aware that after using some disinfectants, the surface may need to be rinsed. Some disinfectants leave a chemical residue on the surface. This residue can act like a magnet, collecting soil and contaminants.  Rinsing the surface with pure tap water should wash away the residue.

Locker Room Floors And Training
When it comes to preventing the spread of disease in locker rooms, one surface to never overlook is the floor. Keeping it clean and healthy is crucial. According to Mark Warner, who is with the education department of The Worldwide Cleaning Industry Association (ISSA), individuals have as many as 50 direct and indirect contacts with a floor every day. If a floor is contaminated, touching it directly or indirectly can begin cross-contamination.

To eliminate pathogens on floor surfaces, it is now recommended not to use mops. While this may come as a surprise to some administrators, this recommendation has been documented since the early 1970s in tests conducted in hospitals1:

  • Mops collect pathogens as the floor is cleaned.
  • When the mop is dipped into the cleaning solution, pathogens are added.
  • As the cleaning solution becomes saturated with pathogens, it loses its efficacy (effectiveness).
  • The mop and cleaning solution are now working together, not to remove pathogens from the floor but to spread them, the opposite of what was intended.

Mopping alternatives include what ISSA calls spray-and-vac cleaning systems. No mops are used, cleaning solution is applied to the floor and other surfaces, the areas are rinsed, and all moisture is vacuumed up.

Another option is the use of trolley buckets, which release cleaning solution directly to the floor, so it stays fresh.  Once again, no mops are used.

As the trolley bucket is walked over the floor, it releases a cleaning solution, which is then agitated. Soils and moisture can then be vacuumed up by adding attachments to the bucket or using a wet/dry vacuum.

Finally, there can be no discussion on ways to keep a locker room clean and healthy without discussing training. A well-trained cleaning worker is the first line of defense in keeping locker-room areas healthy. Park and rec administrators should always remember that the role of cleaning is not appearance; it is health.  

1 Hospital Sanitation: the Massive Bacterial Contamination of the Wet Mop
John C. N. Westwood, Mary A. Mitchell, Suzanne Legacé
Appl Microbiol. 1971 Apr; 21(4): 693–697.

Robert Kravitz is a frequent writer for the professional cleaning industry. Reach him at robert.kravitz@outlook.com.