Healthy Floorcoverings

by Tania Wannenburg
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There is more to healthy flooring than meets the eye, with several criteria that need to be considered when referring to a floor as being hygienic.

The word ‘healthy’ is a generalised concept that means different things to different people. It is defined by www.oxforddictionaries.com as the state of being free from illness or injury. Building on this definition, it becomes apparent that a healthy floorcovering has to meet stringent requirements depending on its intended use and the environment that it will inevitably serve.

This feature article will identify and explore what constitutes a healthy floorcovering, and the various factors that need to be considered when referring to a floor as being healthy.

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This diagram shows the principles that determine whether a floorcovering can be considered healthy, and the criteria that influence the classification of a hygienic floor. What a floor is composed of will determine its resistance to various factors such as bacterial growth and mildew, as well as its influence on indoor air quality.

Besides the composition of a flooring product, its performance will also determine whether it can be viewed as a healthy floorcovering or not. An example is a commercial floor that is slip-resistant and even oil- and/or dirt-resistant to ensure that it performs to expectation. Pursuing a sustainable floor that is easy yet environmentally friendly is a given, not a luxury, as these characteristics will ultimately affect the lifespan of the selected floor type.

Top 6 criteria for selecting a healthy floorcovering
1.    Bacteria, mould and mildew resistance
Regardless of the space where a specific floor type will be installed, the flooring product needs to be composed of elements that make it resistant to bacterial growth and the formation of mould and mildew. Certain institutions, such as hospitals, will undoubtedly require a floor type that is made of the most technologically advanced materials currently available to the industry to ensure a healthy environment for patients, staff and visitors alike.

Other commercial environments, such as food preparation industries, have the same needs, which is why flooring manufacturers continue to evolve when it comes to implementing some of the latest technology to prevent the formation of harmful elements that can affect the personal health and wellbeing of the users of their floor. Certain installations within the commercial sector demand the need for antibacterial floorcoverings, and while this need is gaining popularity, South Africa still has a way to go in ensuring that all installations offer hygienic attributes.

2.    Low or No VOCs
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are carbon-based chemicals that easily evaporate at room temperature. While most people can smell high-levels of some VOCs, other VOCs have no odour. However, odour alone doesn’t indicate the level of risk from inhalation of this group of chemicals.

VOC concentrations in indoor air depend on several factors, including the:
•    Amount of VOCs in a product;
•    Rate at which the VOCs are released;
•    Volume of the air in a room/building;
•    Ventilation rate of the area; and
•    Outdoor concentrations of VOCs.
The health risk from inhaling any chemical depends on how much is in the air, how long and how often a person breathes it in. Breathing in low levels of VOCs for long periods of time may increase some people’s health challenges. It has become very evident that the most effective way to limit VOCs indoors is to limit the potential sources of VOCs. This is where some in the flooring industry can play a significant role by manufacturing floors with little or no VOC content to ensure the health of users and to service the needs of commercial environments, such as offices, which are often enclosed spaces with little fresh air or proper ventilation.

3.    Slip resistance
As noted above, injury prevention forms part of the functioning and criteria of a healthy floorcovering. Slip-resistant floors are required in commercial environments in particular, as they are usually more prone to being exposed to heavy footwear on a daily basis. The last thing anyone in the retail sector, for example, would want is for injury to be caused by slips and falls, and this is the reason why slip-resistant floor types are specified to begin with.

In addition, if the wrong floor type is specified and installed without factoring in the prevention of slippery surfaces, it will most likely result in the re-installation of a new floor, (not considered a requisite or norm in South Africa). This in turn will add dramatically to initial expenses and downtime, not to mention the wastage of building material. This is why it is so important to invest in knowledge regarding the various floor types available, becoming acutely aware of what constituents they are comprised of, to ensure that the selected floor is indeed slip-resistant.

4.    Sustainability
Much has been communicated regarding the concept of sustainability and going green. Manufacturers are pressed to create products that can be re-used and recycled, thereby minimising the amount of materials that end up in landfills. The demand for sustainable flooring continues to pervade the industry, with regulations and certifications setting high standards and serving as evidence that the floor type installed is indeed environmentally friendly and can even be recycled.

The health of a floorcovering often goes hand in hand with its sustainability attributes, and the product is usually specified accordingly. As a result of prevailing regulations and certifications, specifiers are more frequently selecting products according to their compliance with these requirements, whether compulsory or not. This is why the industry will continue to select products according to their sustainability features, in turn creating a minimum standard as to what is or isn’t considered a sustainable flooring product. The end result is a healthy floor that is environmentally friendly.

5.    Extended Lifespan
The longevity of any floor type is one of the key requirements that influence the decisions made by specifiers. Nobody in the commercial sector installs a floor with the aim to refurbish or replace it shortly after installation. Not only will this be a costly exercise, but will also cause a significant amount of downtime, which again influences costs.

Furthermore, if the original flooring is comprised of materials that are not sustainable and cannot be recycled, it will most likely end up in a landfill, thus negatively impacting the environment – a scenario that is fervently discouraged.

The lifespan of a floor is dependent on several factors, such as maintenance programmes, installation methods, the quality of craftsmanship and the standard of materials used to manufacture the floor. If a floor is of such a standard of excellence that it will last for several years to come, it will undoubtedly contribute towards a healthy environment. This is because of the fact that the floor is comprised of sustainable materials (which offers healthy benefits as identified above) and is maintained without using harmful chemical detergents (which could pose risks to the health benefits of a floor type).

6.    Maintenance programme
The chosen method of cleaning and maintaining a floor not only ensures that it performs according to specification, but also increases its lifespan. Certain floor types are even soil-, oil- and water-resistant, which minimises the extent of cleaning required. The goal of a maintenance programme is to keep the floor clean, which ultimately ensures that it remains healthy for those occupying the commercial space in which the floorcovering is installed.

If a floor requires strong chemical detergents to be used on a daily basis, it could inevitably affect the health and wellbeing of individuals exposed to these chemicals over a long period of time. Technological advancements in flooring have made it simpler and more user-friendly to keep up with a specific maintenance programme, which decreases costs for cleaning materials, and also exposure to strong chemicals. In addition, floors need to be thoroughly cleaned in environments prone to spills, failing which, slips and falls will be more prevalent.

All of the above-mentioned criteria are intertwined and cannot be considered in isolation from each other. All are aimed at ensuring floorcoverings that are healthy, not only because of their constituents, but also their performance levels, sustainability characteristics and extended lifespan.

Even though certain environments may require flooring that has very specific hygienic attributes, it has to be remembered that healthy floors aim to benefit people and, this being the case, compromising on any of the above mentioned criteria is not even an option. Healthy floors equate to healthy environments, and in turn, healthy individuals – a goal actively sought after by the flooring industry.

Acknowledgement and thanks are given to www.health.state.mn.us for a selection of information contained in this article.

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