Some jobs are just the filthiest

Mucking out the mundane macabre

There is cleaning – and then there is cleaning. When it comes to the worst cases of grot, a strong constitution and specialist expertise is a must. One might hope they are never needed, but the specialists are ready, willing and able just in case. Welcome to the world of extreme cleaning

 By Mark Cantrell 

First published in Northern Housing

TO mess up an old Yorkshire aphorism, ‘where there’s muck there’s folk as bold as brass’. Bold as in strong of stomach, nor easily shocked, because the men and women in the extreme cleaning business come face to face with the grimmest and grimiest of jobs every day.

The companies are a specialised breed; the very nature of the work demands rather more than rubber gloves and mop and bucket. It may involve specialist equipment, expertise in safely handling and disposing of contaminated materials and wastes, as well as a host of other specialised knowledge and experience. Theirs is not a trade for the faint of heart.

For social landlords, the most common tasks that need the extreme cleaners are graffiti removal, cleaning and disinfecting bin lockers and chutes, jet spraying, external cleaning, removal of pigeon guano, fumigation, bulk waste removal and so on. Then there are instances such as drain and sewer leaks, or fire and flood recovery, that will require specialised assistance. These might sound somewhat mundane, to the practitioners at least, if not the rest of us, but far from it; if it is not the extent of grime, then it is the scale that make the case for the professional ‘grime-busters’.

“For the housing world, we mainly provide the clean and clear kind of work, where a social housing tenant has left the place in a mess,” said Steve Broughton of London-based Cleansafe Services. “So that unit of social housing has to be turned round, all the stuff removed, and it has to be cleaned ready for the next tenant.”

That sounds simple enough, but in cases of ‘gross filth’, as it is known, the reality can beggar belief. These are typified by homes that are found to be filled with rubbish and left in a filthy state, piled high with hoarded junk, or otherwise left in a state that makes the phrase ‘unfit for human habitation’ seem like a gross understatement. Once again, it is a job for the extreme cleaners who see in such Augean jobs a satisfying challenge, whereas we lesser mortals would recoil in horror and disgust.

“You can never tell what is behind someone’s front door when you are going to these properties. You can be absolutely amazed that you have to crawl over a pile of rubbish just to get in some of the rooms. We do a lot of extreme clearances, much more than many people realise are out there,” said a spokesman for Kent’s Clearway Environmental Services.

It’s not just the mess. Piles of rotting refuse left in a property can attract pest infestations and otherwise pose hazards to human health. Beyond clearing out the rubbish, and tackling any pests, there is also the safe handling of the waste and the disinfection of the property to consider too.

“A typical gross filth clean up will usually involve a building or residence that a reasonable person would find uninhabitable or unsafe. This can be due to any combination of biohazards: excessive rubbish, expired food, odour, faecal matter whether it is animal or human, bodily fluids, mould, mildew, animal or insect infestation,” according to Lodge Environmental Services, based in Goole.

“The task of cleaning an area of gross filth can be challenging for an individual untrained in decontamination and odour removal. In addition, those tasked with such a job must be trained in locating and safely eliminating hazardous materials.”

Drug dens, and the paraphernalia of addiction, and ‘prostitution dens’ are another aspect of the extreme cleaners’ work, where the detritus of the activity is not only unpleasant but poses hazards to human health.

Dirty needles, used condoms, bodily fluids, all pose infection risks to the unprotected, or unguarded, which require professional cleaning and disposal. There are much worse scenarios that an extreme cleaner must face however. If much of their work can be said to be mundane, then there is much more that escalates into the macabre. Cleansafe and Clearway, Lodge, for example, all provide clean up services to crime scenes, sites of trauma – such as accidents or suicides – and also are called upon to deal with the tragic and unpleasant legacy of so-called undiscovered death. Macabre, certainly, but also poignant, tragic and traumatic. Sensitivity and people skills therefore become another essential component of the trade.

“We have worked on murders and suicides, we’ve had cases of undiscovered death, but probably the worst are where people have jumped in front of freight trains,” said Cleansafe’s Broughton.

“As people, all the staff are highly trained, very professional and they are fully aware of the items they might come across in their line of work, but at any stage, they are free to receive any counselling if they require it.”

In cases of death and trauma, where it has happened in a residential setting, the men and women tasked with the clean up may also find themselves having to deal directly with family members or neighbours. In such cases, it’s not just the professional competency that is required of the extreme cleaner, but a ‘bedside manner’ of sensitivity and respect.

“In some instances, you are almost doing a service for the family, so [for the staff] there’s a certain satisfaction in helping people there. We’re not trained social workers, but by the same token the company does carry out its own internal training programmes with respect to these kinds of work – it is just treating people with respect. There’s no magical answer. You are respectful. You do the job to the best of your ability and you do it discretely. Do that and the family is delighted most of the time.”

Clearly, any company called upon for such harrowing jobs are not your run of the mill contractors.

For most of us, ‘undiscovered death’ is a headline in the local media. By the time they are found, of course, the body is not only severely unpleasant, but also a significant biohazard in itself. The aftermath of undiscovered death is tucked away safely beyond the perceptions of the general public, but the extreme cleaners are tasked to clean up after the deceased.

The phrase ‘advanced state of decomposition’ neatly sidesteps the hideous reality of noxious odours, maggots, and bodily fluids. The legacy of the Grim Reaper’s time-keeping is not, as extreme cleaners know, a pretty sight. Nevertheless, it’s a job that must be done. The more macabre cases may be somewhat rare – though not rare enough, alas – but even the more mundane demands of the extreme cleaner offer peculiar insights into the often hidden complexities of human life that is perhaps all too often lost to our modern sanitised sensibilities.

For the social housing world, however, there is not the luxury of hiding from the potential occurrences of such grim realities. Life can be a messy affair. And then some.

This article was first published in Northern Housing magazine, circa March 2010. It was subsequently re-published on the Housing Excellence website, 15 April 2010.

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