Workplace cleanliness a critical issue for businesses still operating in coronavirus era

Once a routine part of office operations, cleaning has become a flashpoint for workers at businesses that remain open amid the coronavirus outbreak. New technologies might promise more safety one day, but the present-day reality for some workers is a fear of exposure on the job.

One worker at a UPS facility in San Francisco said he could not get an answer about whether a delivery truck had been cleaned. He said the company had mainly handed out small bottles of hand sanitizer.

“We’re not being given what we need to make sure we’re safe in our work environment,” said the worker, who asked not to be named. The Chronicle granted the worker anonymity, in accordance with its policy on such sources, because of the worker’s fear of retaliation by his employer and colleagues.

The worker also described close quarters and a lack of physical separation — the mandates in the Bay Area for social distancing — at the Potrero Hill shipping facility. Photos from inside the worksite showed employees standing less than 6 feet apart, with some not wearing gloves or masks while processing packages.

Employees at the facility are crammed in around a 36-inch-wide conveyor belt, dealing with shipment volumes akin to the rush around Christmas time, the employee added, noting “Everybody is passing everybody in this 3-foot space,” the worker said.

UPS spokesman Matthew O’Connor said in an email that the company has substantially increased the cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces in its facilities including delivery vehicles and has added space between workstations inside company workplaces.

Dry Kings Restoration is lending out hydroxyl generators, which kill microorganisms in the air.

O’Connor said the company had delivered 250,000 bottles of hand sanitizer to employees and handed out 17,000 masks at facilities across the U.S., with a similar number en route. He added sick employees are required to seek medical treatment and those diagnosed with or quarantining because of the virus receive 10 days of pay.

Procuring masks and gloves can be extremely difficult because medical facilities are in more dire need than businesses like UPS, said Joe Cilia, secretary and treasurer of the Teamsters Local 2785 union chapter which represents some workers at the UPS facility.

He added that UPS had tried to mark cleaned vehicles with Post-It notes or by engaging the seat belts of parked trucks, but that the system was far from perfect.

Cilia agreed that large employers like UPS need to do a better job of enforcing social distancing. “I’m telling my members you need to stop talking to everybody and socializing because that’s where it’s going to be transmitted,” he said.

While companies struggle to stay ahead of the virus during the present crisis, the future of workplace cleaning could look very different.

SoftBank Robotics, a subsidiary of the Japanese technology company whose U.S. headquarters are in San Francisco, sells an automated sweeping robot called Whiz. It does repetitive, time-consuming tasks, allowing human cleaners to execute deeper cleans.

“How clean is everything that I’m touching?” is a key question for the cleaning industry now, said SoftBank Robotics’ Kass Dawson.

Whiz is sold mostly for large office buildings. Interest in the product has been on the rise, although many businesses are wary of making large purchases during a global economic slowdown, Dawson said.

“They understand the value, but folks are still interested in trying to understand where the world is going to net out after this financially,” he added.

Other types of machines that kill mold, viruses and other microbes are already common in the building restoration industry, according to Matthew Sharpe, executive manager of Dry Kings Restoration in San Rafael. Sharpe said he typically uses the machines after tearing out moldy walls to eliminate spores from the air.

Dry Kings Restoration owner Matthew Sharpe wears dark glasses while inspecting the UV lights of a hydroxyl generator in San Rafael. The generators’ ultraviolet light kills airborne microorganisms.

Sharpe has begun lending his stock of hydroxyl generators, which use ultraviolet light to kill microorganisms in the air, to local hospitals and homes for the elderly, where many are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, the coronavirus disease. The machines are not specifically rated to kill the coronavirus, but are designed to treat pathogens in the air. They have been installed in other facilities where coronavirus infections have proliferated.

“They should be standard use,” Sharpe said. “It would be nice if they built them into the air conditioning systems,” he added, noting the machines ranged from $1,000 to over $3,000 depending on size. He said he planned to donate about 20 to Bay Area organizations.

Air filtration is not enough, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends using diluted bleach or solutions with at least 70% alcohol to disinfect surfaces.

The CDC website recommends cleaning and disinfecting frequently-touched surfaces daily in the home including tables, hard-backed chairs, doorknobs, light switches, remotes, handles, desks, toilets and sinks.

Despite most business activity screeching to a halt, some cleaning businesses are continuing to see demand.

“We’re seeing normal levels of business,” said Dany Paz, owner of San Francisco’s Authentic Commercial Cleaning.

Paz said his company cleans large buildings like warehouses and is getting more requests for thorough disinfecting of “chairs, tables, walls, phones, everything.”

Chase DiFeliciantonio is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @ChaseDiFelice

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