Crime-Scene Cleanup

July 15, 2003
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The world is an ever-changing place. In the last two years there have been a growing number of violent incidents occurring across the country. We have seen an increase in the number of suicides taking place, domestic violence is growing in frequency, and the murder rate is rising.

In light of these events, there has been an increase in the demand for crime-scene cleanup personnel. With this demand comes the usual jump in new start-up companies; the bad thing is that so few actually know what they are doing. Many of these companies are approaching scene cleanup with an “on-the-job training,” mentality, a foolhardy proposition at best. These scenes are far too dangerous for the untrained, uneducated individual to even consider working on them.

It is estimated that only about 20 percent of death scenes are cared for by a trained company or staff. The other 80 percent is left to family, friends or someone else who is most probably ill-equipped and unfamiliar with laws covering dumping, personal protection, inoculations and other industry standards.

More often than not, people are lured to crime-scene cleanup by the promise of an excellent paycheck; a good company can earn from $250 to $500 an hour. But earning this kind of money requires overcoming the nightmarish problem of marketing the service. Police officers, firefighters and other emergency services personnel are prohibited from providing referrals, and the very nature of the business precludes the use of billboards or large Yellow Page advertisements.

The business of crime-scene cleanup adheres to some very strict guidelines. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued Bloodborne Pathogens Standard 1910.1030 on Dec. 6, 1991. The regulation went into effect March 6, 1992, and applies to any employee (within the definitions and jurisdiction of OSHA) who has occupational exposure to blood or other potentially infectious materials as defined by this standard (the standard is being continually updated; check www.osha.gov for details.). It includes, but is not limited to, blood, semen, mucus, parietal fluids, amniotic fluid and saliva. Exposure can be effected by cuts, inhalation, the eyes, the mouth and by other openings in the body. It can result from something as simple as a syringe hidden in a chair, behind a sink or in a commode.

Since the Bloodborne Pathogen Standard came into effect, compliance costs for companies and businesses have been estimated to run about $813 million annually. This includes personal protective equipment, training, vaccines and exposure follow-up, and housekeeping for government outpatient facilities; linen services; hotels; law enforcement; hospices; nursing homes; residential care businesses and many others. And as the U.S. economy changed for the worse, many in-house staffs responsible for compliance have been reduced or eliminated, creating a need for the services of companies specializing in biohazard cleanup.

Keep in mind that this is an ugly, grisly business; the faint of heart need not apply. The visual and sometimes visceral remains left from a homicide or suicide, as well as the biohazardous waste that exists as a by-product of someone’s lifestyle, are part of the job. Sometimes the remains of an individual who both lived and died alone may remain in the home for months before being discovered.

At the time of death, the body begins to decay. It starts with lividity, followed by rigor mortis and, ultimately, putrefaction. It is at this stage that bone, tissue and organs turn to a jelly like substance and start to decompose. Decomposition is controlled by temperature, air movement, and moisture, conditions that will retard or accelerate decomposition and determine off-gassing levels. It is at this stage that cleanup is most difficult.

The cause of death plays a major role in approaching a cleanup and in the time it will take to accomplish. When dealing with gunshot victims, the weapon caliber (e.g. a .22 vs. a .44 magnum) as well as the type of projectile used (hollow point, Teflon-tipped, soft or heavy load, etc.) will affect the damage done to the body. The location of the entry wound or wounds will result in varying amounts of tissue and blood loss. Other causes of death, ranging from blunt trauma from a hammer or bat to punctures from knives, broken bottles or even axes, create completely different cleanup needs. Burn victims require a different set of skills be employed during cleanup, due to conditions affecting the environment where the body is found.

The various locations where bodies are found also necessitate the need for a variety of skills and the use of specific equipment and training. Bodies will be found in attics, crawl spaces, under buildings, in elevator shafts, in boxcars, vehicles and in many other locales. Accessing these places may require training to become comfortable in “confined work spaces”; becoming proficient in the use of a self-contained breathing apparatus; acquiring knowledge of electrical systems; understanding safe methods of access and egress, and other skills.

In addition, there are a number of official regulations that must be understood and abided by, including Universal Precautions, Engineering and Work Practices; Personal Protective Equipment; Housekeeping; Vaccinations and Post-Exposure Follow-up; Communication Training; Permits and Record Keeping. It is important to receive sensitivity training, as situations involving victims’ family members will arise. And due to the stressful nature of the business, critical incident stress management is also important, because you are not always going to feel warm and fuzzy.

It is important to keep in mind that OSHA regulations also include violations. Failure to provide proper training or equipment to employees, poor record keeping, illegal dumping or something as seemingly innocuous as not holding on to records long enough fall into this category. Some violations, committed unknowingly, carry fines of $7,000; some willful infractions carry fines as high as $70,000. Criminal fines can cost up to $10,000 and include six month to one year in jail. Obviously, considerable training and a good understanding of the industry as a whole are extremely important pieces to have in place before going into business.

It is impossible to cover all aspects of the business, such as chemicals, cleaning aids, personal protective gear, foggers, et al, in such a short article. Crime scene cleanup can be very profitable, yes. But its services must be provided safely, professionally and with the utmost respect and sensitivity for all those involved.

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