Understanding a Sustainability Color-Coding System

Understanding a Sustainability Color-Coding System

products About a decade ago, doctors at Johns Hopkins Medical Center separated a pair of two-month-old identical twins who had been joined at the abdomen. Even though the babies were identical twins, were “conjoined,” and likely shared organs, doctors knew that for the health and safety of each baby they should use separate medical tools. This would help reduce the chances of infection before and after they performed the separation.

To ensure that the right medical instruments and medicines were used with the right baby, the team of doctors developed a color-coding system before the surgery. While this is a dramatic example, it serves as a good illustration of the importance of color coding and how it may be used in a variety of situations.

In fact, healthcare was one of the first industries to realize the value of a color-coding system. Because it allows for quick and easy identification of medical tools and medicines, it helps minimize if not eliminate mistakes.

Color Coding and the Professional Cleaning Industry

The cleaning industry has also embraced color coding over the past decade for the same reasons. According to the Australian Department of Health, which has established a series of directives regarding the use of color coding in cleaning, healthcare, and other industries, “color coding is often the most efficient method to separate cleaning equipment by task, use, area, and application because [it allows for] simple sight-recognition.” (See sidebar: “A Typical Color-Coding System Used in Medical Facilities.”)

Now we are seeing a new use for a color-coding system, this time as an efficient way to help facilities become more sustainable, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy and water use, and cut operating costs. The key to the system is placement of small, inconspicuous colored dots on a variety of power- and water-using sources in a facility.

An example of this would be a red dot placed on “power load” items such as light switches, desk lamps, fans, space heaters, computer monitors and printers, and even vending machines. The red dot would indicate that the custodial crew should turn off these items at the end of each business day.

Along with red, other colors often used in a sustainability color-coding system include the following:

  • A green dot might indicate power sources that should be left on.
  • A yellow dot might signify that the cleaning crew should contact building management or office personnel regarding the item.
  • A blue dot might be placed on equipment such as vending machines that is left on during the week but can be turned off on the weekends.

Once facility managers have an understanding of what a sustainability color-coding system is and how it can be put into practice, they can put together an effective system. Some of the key stages include the following:

Make a plan: Determine what colors are to be used and what each one will designate; identify what power sources and types of power sources each color will apply to.

Train workers and inform stakeholders: At this point, put the program into operation. If someone has not done so already, a team member should explain to custodial workers and other stakeholders why the sustainability color-coding system is being created, what each color represents, and what actions they are to take for each color.

Keep the entire program as simple as possible. The more complicated it is, the more difficult it will be to implement and follow. While the dots should be inconspicuous, they should not be difficult for cleaning workers to find or see. In addition, provide refresher courses on the program for custodial workers, and allow time for their feedback. They may have first hand suggestions that can be of great value. This also keeps them involved with the program and enthusiastic about it, which helps guarantee its success.

Walk through the facility: This is possibly the most time-consuming part of the program but the most important. The team must walk through the entire facility and assign a different color to each power source, group of power sources, or type of power sources. It is not unusual for later modifications to be implemented, and there are no rules and regulations that apply to all facilities. The best system is one that everyone can agree with even if it must later be adjusted.

Form a team: Create a team to spearhead the system; it should involve management, custodial workers, and building users. The team’s first duty is to explain to all stakeholders why the color-coding system is being developed.

Why Custodial Workers?

Why have the custodial crews handle this? In most facilities, crew members are the last ones in the building, know what power sources have been left on, and can turn them off before the building is shut down for the evening.

Stephen P. Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in greening the cleaning industry and CEO of Sustainability Tool LLC, an electronic dashboard that allows organizations to measure and report on their sustainability efforts.  He is also coauthor of both The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies.

Sidebar: A Typical Color-Coding System for Cleaning Used in Medical Facilities

Red—high risk: Would apply to tools, equipment, and chemicals used for cleaning toilets, urinals, floors, operating areas, etc.

Yellow—moderate to high risk: Would include tools used for cleaning infectious and isolation areas of a hospital as well as door handles and other high-touch areas

Green—low risk: Typically applies to foodservice areas

Blue—low risk: Would include clerical areas

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