ICS Magazine

Trauma Cleaning: It's Not How It Looks on TV

November 8, 2005


One of the most sought-after acting jobs in New York City doesn't require the actor to memorize one line of script. There is hardly any rehearsing, and even though the actor is on screen only about 10 seconds, it is considered one of the best-paying jobs in television.

The job? Playing the victim in the opening death scene that introduces just about every episode of the NBC TV series Law and Order.

When the scene is over and taped, the actor and the crew just pick up their equipment and walk away, their work completed. Someone might come by to sweep the area clean, but in most situations, even that is not necessary.

That is definitely not the way things are in real life. After a suicide or homicide, the body may be left for several hours - where it may have already been for days - while investigators try to piece together exactly what happened. Then, once the body has been taken away to the morgue, the area is often covered with blood and body parts, requiring a detailed and meticulous cleaning before it can be used again.

If it happens in a home, as is so often the case with suicides and homicides, the victim's family may choose to not even return to the home until the area has been cleaned. Many years ago, someone from the city or police department might help with the cleanup, but the service was very basic, and most often the major cleaning was just turned over to the family. This is usually how things are still handled today. And because of this, a specialized segment of the cleaning industry has evolved: trauma or crime-scene cleaning.

Not for the Faint of Heart
As you can imagine, crime-scene cleaning is not for the faint of heart. Contract cleaners considering venturing into this growing industry might want to visit a crime scene first, just to make sure they can handle it emotionally. Usually, what they will find is blood or body parts on walls, ceilings, furniture, lamps, pictures, keys, jewelry, trinkets, and carpets. The sights and the odors can be horrific.

All areas where the incident occurred must be thoroughly washed down. Often, carpets and draperies are simply ripped out and furniture is discarded if it has been soaked in blood. But virtually all the other surfaces require not only cleaning but disinfection to remove odors and make sure no harmful contaminants remain.

It is not uncommon to find that some of the people who perform this work are former police officers, firefighters, or emergency medical personnel. They know what a crime scene looks like and what to expect. But even though they may be familiar with the gore of a crime scene, they still must learn how to safely and efficiently clean up the area so that families and building occupants may go on with their lives and the area may be used again.

Training and Certification
Trauma or crime-scene cleanup requires that workers be trained on how to handle and remove hazardous waste. There are several federal regulations that must be followed, and many states and cities have their own additional rules and regulations.

Many of these rules are to prevent exposure and protect the health and safety of the cleaning workers. Some of the guidelines include:

  • The cleaning staff must receive blood-borne pathogen (BBP) training.
  • The company in charge of the cleaning must have a written BBP-exposure-control plan.
  • All workers must be provided personal protective equipment, including such items as gloves, goggles, and proper footwear.
  • They must receive training in equipment for handling, storing, and removing bio-hazardous waste and placing it in properly marked containers for disposal at approved sites.
  • In some areas, the worker must be offered a hepatitis B vaccine, as well as an exposure evaluation and medical follow-ups.

    As the industry has grown in the past 15 to 20 years, private companies have been started that offer training and certification programs in trauma and crime scene cleanup. There are also associations for the industry such as the American BioRecovery Association (ABRA) that also provide training and certification.

    Additionally, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides information and courses on the safe handling of all types of hazardous material, including blood and body fluids. They also review the federal regulations governing crime scene cleaning and provide certification programs as well.

    The Job at Hand
    Once the body has been removed from a trauma or crime-scene cleanup job, the first step involves assessing the situation. For instance, if the victim was found shot in a bedroom, there may be blood on carpeting, beds, draperies, furniture, walls, ceilings, etc. Some areas, as mentioned earlier, such as carpets and furniture soaked in blood, and, in this scenario, the bed, are best disposed of instead of salvaged. Shelves and counters must also be checked. If items on these surfaces have been affected, they must be properly bagged for later cleaning or disposal.

    Once the evaluation has been completed, the actual cleaning may start. After being properly suited in protective gear, workers begin the task of wiping down walls and cleaning floors, ceilings, and other surfaces with a hospital-grade disinfectant. The disinfectant must be powerful enough and certified to kill HIV, certain forms of hepatitis, E. coli and herpes, as well as mold, mildew, and fungi. And because there is so much "touching" of surfaces in the cleaning process, even though gloves and protective gear are worn, the technician must always assume the victim could have any virus, disease or illness, making cross contamination a serious concern.

    To avoid contact with surfaces, the risk of cross contamination, and the possibility of endangering their own health and the health of their employees, some crime-scene cleanup companies use no-touch cleaning systems. With these systems, disinfectants are chemically injected onto the affected areas and allowed sufficient dwell time. Some surfaces may require scrubbing, but instead of wiping or touching areas, workers can use the machine's high-pressure rinse to blast away soils, or a deck brush attached to the machine to loosen contaminants for easier removal.

    Building a Business
    Crime-scene cleanup pays well, as much as $250 per hour per worker. If it is a business you are interested in starting, or if you are a contract cleaner and want to expand into crime scene cleaning, then the question soon arises as to how to go about marketing a crime-scene cleanup business.

    Most prospective business owners contact those individuals who must deal with the victims of homicides and suicides. This includes getting to know people in the homicide departments of your local police department, emergency medical personnel, and firefighters. Additionally, pastors, rabbis, and counselors dealing with grieving families can be good contacts. These people can refer those dealing with a trauma or crime-scene cleanup situation to you.

    Local newspapers and television crews occasionally discuss this unusual but necessary segment of our industry. Having your company mentioned in these stories can help establish your business in your community. Once established, many companies do well, and some have even formed franchises or established offices in other communities. Like any business, success takes persistence, but unlike other businesses, this one also requires a strong stomach.