Green Jobs and Green, Clean Schools: Re-thinking the Role of School Custodians

February 15, 2011 | Written By:

by Mark Bishop, Vice President of Policy and Communications

Kudos to the Blue Green Alliance for running their fourth annual Good Jobs Green Jobs conference! I was honored to be a presenter this year. For those who aren’t familiar with BGA, it’s a coalition of leading national labor unions and environmental groups working together to promote job growth through the expansion of green jobs and better environmental policy.

Since its inception, BGA has worked on promoting green jobs, but primarily in terms of large construction projects: building wind turbines, solar panels, efficient transportation. This is all good and important work, but in the work we do, we look at it a bit differently. We think of green jobs as custodial services, environmental education, environmental justice, and in changing the day to day ways we think about our schools. I was heartened to see that their focus is expanding into service delivery and education.

In my session, we discussed how custodial services that focus on environmental issues (partly through green cleaning programs) can promote health, improve the environment while delivering value to building owners and the service industry as a whole.

What does this mean? Well, in our schools, the only people who look at the entire facility on a daily basis are custodians -– let’s make sure we treat our custodians as a resource to green our facilities and to save money at the same time. It all starts with improving the training we provide to our custodial staff. Here are a few things that could help take us in that direction:

  1. Training staff on green cleaning programs to improve health and save money. Green cleaning programs can reduce the amount of chemicals that we use (and buy), and modern equipment can make existing staff more efficient with their cleaning.
  2. Training staff to identify energy hogs (plugged-in unused appliances, unauthorized electronic equipment, faulty equipment that is still draining electricity) to reduce energy use.
  3. Training staff to identify water problems (leaky faucets, inoperable toilets, wet tiles) and empowering them to initiate fixes to these issues.
  4. Training staff to clean areas that would lead to greater energy efficiency (such as refrigeration equipment) and identifying areas where inefficiencies are being created (such as build-up in ventilation paths).

None of these items listed above are particularly complicated, but all of them do require a rethinking of how we train and how we value our custodial workers.

And this isn’t pie in the sky. It’s happening. SEIU 32BJ is doing a program such as this right now. And our friends at the Ashkin Group are leading the charge at changing the way building owners think about custodial services. (You go, Steve!)

This also highlights the importance of the policy work we do to expand the adoption of green cleaning programs. We need to improve the environments in which students learn and staff work. But we also have to help support the cleaning service industry by recognizing the value that it brings to our schools.

Ultimately, it’s only through a well-trained workforce that we’ll be able to provide a healthy and safe environment for our kids. Maybe one way to do this is by truly treating our custodians as the care takers of our schools and people who can make a difference for healthy, sustainable spaces. They take care of our buildings, ensure efficient resource use and make sure we have safe environments for all occupants.

Our custodial workers can be an important part of the green economy. We just need to recognize the key role they play in providing healthy, sustainable learning spaces.

Plus: To learn more about green cleaning in schools, check out HSC's Quick & Easy Guide to Green Cleaning in Schools!

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