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Editor gets his hands dirty in election job swap

As part of its election coverage, The Citizen in Gloucester has been examining the issues that are important to its readers. As part of its coverage on health, editor Ian Mean spent the day at a local hopsital, finding out first hand what an important role cleaners play. Here he tells of his efforts to memorise the cleaners’ strict colour working code, and why to patients they are more than just ‘Mrs Mops’…

Gloucestershire Royal Hospital has 215 cleaners, earning an average of £5.67 an hour and working to 50 shift patterns to cover its hectic 24-hour operation.

Not surprisingly, good cleaners are consistently the hospital’s biggest recruitment challenge. It’s only recently that the hourly wages have been increased to give them a chance of being competitive with supermarket cleaners.

I received a detailed induction and early the next morning I changed into my uniform for the 7am to 2pm shift. The title on my blue polo short was ‘domestic assistant’. Training shoes were barred, so I wore my normal work shoes.

The night before I had tried to memorise the cleaners’ strict colour working code, aimed at maximum infection control. This was the only thing that might let me down, I thought, so I carried the card in my pocket.

There were red cloths, mops, buckets and gloves for toilet areas; blue for kitchen areas; yellow for general areas and white clothes, yellow gloves and mops for baths and showers.

They were all on my trolley – I just had to use the right combination. While the professional cleaners were extremely helpful, I got the strong impression they thought I was slightly mad. However, they were determined to ensure I did exactly what they did and I made it clear I wanted go through the mill – no short-cuts.

Collecting the patients’ water jugs – the first task of the day – was easy. Washing them, I found that the hospital washing up liquid was rather more powerful than the Fairy Liquid at home and I ended up with a large sink full of bubbles to the amusement of my cleaning colleagues.

Taking the tea trolley round for the patients’ first cuppa was a delight. Patients were very happy to talk to the new boy on the block, and it made me realise that these domestics had a real bond with them. Many knew their Christian names – they were more than just cleaners to patients.

Yes, the domestic staff are paid to keep everywhere clean, but they are part of team that seeks to make a stay in our biggest hospital as pleasant as possible. It isn’t all about colour-coded mops. The friendly face at 7.30am after a bad night can be a godsend.

Quickly, I realise that the culture of cleanliness revolves very rigidly around washing or disinfecting your hands after every task. Every few minutes, I found myself using the alcohol hand gel from containers on the walls of the ward corridors. It became second nature and made your hands feel great.

Disposable gloves were used for all of my cleaning tasks, with a polythene apron. Everything was thrown in the waste bin following every single stage of the cleaning.

A supervisor instructed me on how to clean a shower and toilet using the colour-coded equipment, how to mop the floor in sections and how to change the mops – they are cleaned after each use.

Toilets are washed from the top of the cistern first and then down, with emphasis on all the nooks and crannies. I cleaned two complete shower and toilet areas and can honestly say there was no obvious sign of them being dirty.

This was not a put-up job – the cleaners had not been round all the areas I worked in before to give them the once-over.

As I finished cleaning one loo and put up the sign warning that the floor was still slippery, a patient wanted to use it. In a busy ward like this, the toilets are cleaned on rotation throughout the day, which is very hard work.

Working in the new accident and emergency department, I had to use a feather duster to ensure the monitoring equipment was free of dust, and also clean under the beds. Blood or body fluids, in the first instance, are cleaned up by the nursing staff.

By the time my shift ended, I can honestly say I had found no cleaning horrors.

I wasn’t there to find fault or make a political point. I had no pre-conceived idea of what the job of the hospital cleaner was like. I came away thinking they were really fighting a losing battle, and they were doing a great job against all the odds.

This at a time when, quite rightly, patients’ expectations for service in hospitals are getting higher and higher. The poor old hospital cleaner should not be singled out for criticism in the continuing debate about cleanliness.

What must happen is that the culture of cleanliness I experienced has somehow got to be passed down to patients and especially to the thousands of visitors in our hospitals.

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