Biohazard Cleanup: Pitfalls of Doing the Work
There's a TON of hype about biohazard cleanup because of its "edgyness" and intrigue from television and movies. A lot of people are interested in doing the work because they also know that the people who do it are compensated well. While there may not be a lot of jobs out there, if you start a company and run it the right way, you CAN be compensated well. Despite this truth, there are some risks involved with running a biohazard cleanup company and anyone looking to get into the field should be aware of them.
Everyone knows about the need for general liability insurance within the scope of commercial operations... Someone could trip and fall on site (employee, or otherwise), or someone could contract a disease if exposed to biohazards that weren't properly addressed for some reason. A lot of companies choose to get a janitorial general liability insurance policy because its cheap. If they ever have to file a claim on that policy, they may have trouble collecting the proceeds for the claim due to the real type of work that we do. Today, they make general liability policies catered toward actual biohazard cleanup (such as OneBeacon Environmental).
What you may not know about is the extra layer of liability that we face: the potential to interfere with an investigation. One thing that every cleanup company should keep in mind is that the scene must always be released by the investigating officials first. This means that you have to proactively call the local police, county police or sheriff, or even the fire dire department to make sure that its OK to show up and start cleaning up. One tip for working well with police is to try and get whatever details about the scene that you can. Tell them that you're sure that they've done their job well, but because we methodically clean the scene we sometimes find evidence, and that you'd like to know if you should be on the look-out for anything. This allows for additional contact with authorities and an opportunity to create trust and rapport with the department.
As a crime/trauma scene cleaning company, you're going into environments where there has been violence, high emotions, or really crazy circumstances that you wouldn't ever normally encounter. I once had a call from someone that specifically requested us to come out BEFORE the police arrived (of course, we reported them). I had another phone call from someone wanting to know about the specifics about forensic tractability of poison and things of that nature. There are crazy people out there, and you may run into some of them!
On one occasion, I received a phone call from someone in the Sheriff's department that referred me to a suicide cleanup job. I got my crew together and got ready to head out to the scene when, at the last minute, I received a second call from the deputy who told me to "hold off because the suicide scene was now a murder case" and that the potential customer was now the suspect. We could have been interacting with a murder suspect in person, and would have never known it.
I went on a job one time where I was cleaning up after a gun-shot, self-defense incident. A guy had a friend over who was said to be somewhat mentally unstable and all the sudden he got out of hand and then the homeowner had to shoot his friend. We were on site chatting with the homeowner throughout the cleanup. The homeowner was probably innocent, and that's why they weren't in jail - but you never really know exactly what happened before you arrived. That's not to say you should judge, not trust, or scrutinize your customers. I'm just saying that you have to be aware of your environment and understand that you're walking into potentially dangerous circumstances.
I once dealt with a customer who was screaming and yelling in my face because of how long it took to clean up after his wife's suicide. His son told us that he was yelling at the emergency responders also. By remaining calm it diffused the situation, but the point is that anyone stepping foot into highly emotionally charged situations should remain aware.
One of alluring aspects of doing biohazard cleanup work is that the work is hazardous. We get paid more than regular janitorial staff because we're putting our physical and mental health on the line every time we go out to a site. Anyone entering into this line of work obviously has to undergo bloodborne pathogens training in addition to receiving a Hepatitis B vaccination, but it does well to mention here all of the physical risks that cleanup crews encounter.
Bloodborne pathogens are transmitted via blood, but also by other body fluids like vaginal secretions, semen, and breast milk. Most other body fluids like urine, sweat, and vomit do not pose a risk unless contaminated by blood. This is why it is of the utmost importance to wear PPE (personal protective equipment) while working. It is customary to double up on booties and gloves, while also taping the gloves to the coveralls so that there are no gaps in protection during work.
It is important to note that HIV (human immunodifiency virus) can live outside the body for up to 24 hours. Hepatitis B and C have been noted to live outside of the body for up to a week or so, in some cases. Because of the extreme risk that these viruses cause, it is important to adopt "universal precautions" which advise the treatment of all blood and body fluids as if they were known to already be contaminated.
Not Getting Paid
Biohazard cleanup companies typically work off of homeowner's insurance policies. Sometimes the scope of work (hoarder houses, for example) is not covered under the policy. Sometimes you're dealing with commercial customers who will not file on their policy and insist on paying out of pocket.
Sometimes you get a late night call and the insurance agencies are closed and there's no way to verify insurance coverage. Biohazard cleanup companies have to respond right away, so under these circumstances you may choose to do the job without confirmation of the policy. In these cases, you run the risk of not getting paid. It's part of running a business and taking risk to later be rewarded.
Hurting the family
As someone who cleans up properties that have been touched by tragedy, you have a huge responsibility to ensure that everything has been addressed properly so that the owner can achieve some degree of closure. While this is absolutely crucial, mistakes can always be made - especially if you have employees running your crew. Even the smallest trace of blood left behind on scene could re-ignite tragedy for the customer, not to mention the health risks. Going behind your crew to ensure that the work has been done to ownership standards is a part of running a biohazard cleanup company.
Our goal is to be available to talk to the family if they want that and they are on scene, to keep them from seeing the soiled area of the property, to protect their privacy amongst the neighbors, and to leave the site 100% finished. If we slack in any of those areas, we always run the risk of hurting the family beyond the degree to which they've already been hurt. If you think about it, families that are also our customers already have the logistics of putting together a funeral to consider. The last thing they need to deal with after a tragedy is complications arising from the cleanup effort. Make it easy for them - deal with the subcontractors, the insurance agents, relatives, and the police if necessary.