The Booming Business of Crime-Scene Cleaners

TV crime dramas have made rock stars of forensic investigators, but once the medical detectives have left the scene, nobody likes to talk about what happens next. Cleaning up after violent crimes is left to a rare breed of specialist, one that in B.C. is subject to very little regulation.

Trauma Scene Clean Up | BCBusiness
A crew from Trauma Scene Clean Up examines the scene of the crime before getting down to work.

TV crime dramas have made rock stars of forensic investigators, but once the medical detectives have left the scene, nobody likes to talk about what happens next. Cleaning up after violent crimes is left to a rare breed of specialist, one that in B.C. is subject to very little regulation.

In a 45-minute span, Brian Woronuik has no fewer than three phone calls about scenes his workers are assessing and preparing to clean. One is just down the street: a room containing the remnants of a decomposed body and more than 100 hypodermic needles. Another job involves a lady who has finally come to terms with her hoarding and is ready to clean the waste she has spent a lifetime collecting.

Woronuik is the owner of Trauma Scene Clean Up Ltd. and he finds no shortage of business. “We’ve done a lot of Starbucks and we’ve done lot of McDonald’s . . . . We’ve had multiple stabbings, shootings, blood spread throughout the whole restaurant,” says the owner of the Delta-based company.

Cleaning up after grisly crimes is just one task for specialty cleaners who deal regularly with such issues as biohazard recovery and medical waste disposal. The job goes beyond the sterilization of violent messes left behind at the scene of a crime; these specialty cleaners deal with biohazard problems of all shapes and sizes, which can range from decomposed bodies, to complications associated with everything from hoarding to large sewage backups and rodent infestations. Apart from regulations concerning worker safety, in B.C., it’s an unregulated profession that has only begun to be recognized in the past 10 to 15 years. There are no legally mandated professional qualifications: anyone can hang a shingle and call him or herself a crime-scene cleaner.

Police, paramedics, firefighters and other first responders are often the initial witnesses to the gory scenes that follow homicides, suicides and assaults. But after the bodies are removed and the evidence is collected, the first responders’ work at the scene is done. That’s when companies like Woronuik’s are called. “It’s not up to the ambulance or the firefighters, or the police or the coroners to clean up the mess after tragedy strikes,” he explains, adding that his team’s objective is to help loved ones or business owners move past these tragedies and get on with their lives. “We want to make it look like nothing ever happened. No reminders.”

The popularity of TV shows such as CSI, Hoarders and Bones proves much of society has a morbid curiosity when it comes to death, crime and the human psychology behind these behaviours. But how does a person go from watching sensationalized crime scenes to cleaning up after death? Sometimes the leap from television to real life is not so far, explains Woronuik. “It was back in 1998 when I was working as a firefighter,” he says. “I saw a program on TV about crime-scene cleanups and I was very intrigued by the nature of their business. I was kind of blown away that there was a kind of service like that out there.”

As a firefighter and former armed forces medic, Woronuik had been exposed to some gruesome sights over the years. But he was in the “first-response” category and had never really thought about what went on after he left the scene, until family members of victims started asking him and his fellow firefighters what to do. “There would be a large amount of blood at a residence and families asking us, ‘Who is going to clean it up?’” he recalls. “And we have to explain that that wasn’t what we did.”

After one particular incident with a family in desperate need of a trauma-scene cleaner, Woronuik spent four hours on the phone trying to track down a business that could safely and effectively dispose of the waste left behind by a body. “I exhausted all my efforts calling anybody and everybody: janitorial companies, restoration companies, police, carpet cleaners.” He simply couldn’t find anyone that was both willing and qualified to clean up this type of mess.

“After that, I realized no such business existed,” says Woronuik. However, it made him realize that he had the cast-iron stomach and the compassion necessary to operate a crime-scene cleaning business and be able to help these people in need. Trauma Scene Clean Up opened in 1998 and since then the business has grown to more than 13 employees, with more on-call technicians when extra hands are needed.

Like Woronuik, Chris James, owner of C James Crime and Trauma Scene Decontamination Specialists in Nanaimo, was also used to being the first on the scene in his job as a paramedic. “I discovered that there were calls that I would attend to that were, well, sort of messy, and patients really had no idea what to do after the call was complete and they were left with this mess in the house,” James says. “So it sort of got my interest and I thought, ‘How can I help these people?’” That was eight years ago and, along with his wife and business partner, he has since grown a business that makes more than six figures in revenue in a good year. He still maintains his job as a paramedic because he loves the work, but “it’s a good second income,” says James. However, he makes it clear that while the money is attractive, that is not the motivation behind the business. “We really do enjoy helping people get their lives together again after a trauma or a hoarding situation.”

Both of these companies stick strictly to the cleaning aspect of the business. “We don’t get into the restoration side of things,” explains Woronuik. But that’s how many crime-scene cleaners start out, including Graham Dick, president of Genesis Restorations Ltd., based in Surrey.

Dick was working as a carpet cleaner when he discovered this virtually untapped market. As part of the restoration business, Dick developed working relationships with building managers and property managers throughout his service area. But it was an escalation in service calls that led him to expand his business. He explains that several building managers started calling to enlist his company’s services to remove heavier staining like pet urine, sewer backups and rodent contamination. Eventually this turned into calls to help clean up the aftermath of decomposed bodies and crime-scene messes. “So that’s how it started. I got a call from a property manager and they said, ‘Can you help?’” explains Dick.


Image: Peter Holst
“This is not a mop-and- bucket job,”
says Brian Woronuik; it requires
full protective gear, often including
a haz-mat suit.

The level of training in B.C. for cleaners with this grisly specialty varies widely. What regulations do exist in the industry come from WorkSafeBC, which tightened its rules for handling biological agents – micro-organisms that can cause disease – in February 2008. “We were getting all this new stuff going on like trauma scenes, dead bodies – and workers needed to know how to protect themselves,” explains Geoffrey Clark, senior occupational hygienist at WorkSafeBC.

Health Canada classifies these pathogens into various risk groups. Currently the risk groups are under review, but in the past they ranged from risk group one, which included low-risk viruses like the common cold, to group two, which would include a virus more dangerous to certain ages and risk groups, such as influenza. At the far end of the scale, risk group four traditionally involved extremely hazardous but rare diseases like the Ebola virus. Clark explains that most of what people cleaning up after violent crimes involving death or serious injury would run into would involve risk group two and risk group three.

WorkSafeBC regulations say that if a person is working with any of these higher-risk pathogens, they must follow the protocol for handling biological agents set out in 2008. Clark explains that if they’re dealing with a crime scene that might involve biohazards, the first step in any job of this kind requires workers to assess the risk and see what they are dealing with before starting the cleanup, so they know how to protect themselves. “It could be multiple gunshot victims, with blood everywhere and drugs – all sorts of things – and that risk level is going to be considerably higher,” says Clark.

An exposure-control plan is also a necessary step, he explains. These plans are supposed to be developed by the employer to walk the company’s workers through risk assessment, and establishing the proper controls depending on the assessed risk. The plan would include specifying the equipment that is required to limit this risk and protect the workers — like tongs for picking up needles — and decontamination procedures.

WorkSafeBC has prevention officers to help enforce these regulations and they could theoretically walk onto any of these crime scenes and check up on the workers and ask to see their exposure-control plans. If the business owner does not have one, a legal order could be written and the owner could be subject to a fine, which is based on the payroll and doubles with repeat violations. But Clark says this is not a regular occurrence because the people who work in these kinds of jobs work hard to protect themselves because of the higher risk of exposure to hazardous materials. “At this level, when we’re dealing with things like crime scenes, we are working with people that are really on t0p of their game. If they don’t have the proper documentation, they want to get it and we’re willing to help.”

However, Clark says, regulations are not sufficient without mechanisms to ensure enforcement. “When people don’t listen and continually put themselves at risk, then you have to bring a stick out,” he says. If fines don’t work, Clark and his team can go to court and get injunctions against non-compliant companies to force them off the job; he says this was recently done with an asbestos contractor, who ignored all warnings and was eventually thrown in jail for contempt of court.

While WorkSafeBC regulations define procedural standards to ensure worker safety, there are no regulations defining minimum professional qualifications. When Woronuik, Dick and James started their cleaning jobs, there were no courses or certification available in the province. Two went to the U.S. to get training, while one developed his own training for employees based on American regulations. But all three say it wasn’t as simple as going out and buying heavy-duty bleach and two-ply gloves.

“This is not a mop and bucket job,” says Woronuik, who received much of his training at bio-recovery courses he took in the U.S. — which included certification in bio-recovery, medical waste disposal and blood-born pathogen (BBP) education – as comparable training was not available in Canada. The American Bio-Recovery Association (ABRA), a U.S.-based, non-profit association of biohazard recovery professionals, teaches these courses nationwide. Established in 1996, ABRA enforces American federal regulations specifying that no one can clean up a blood spill or biohazardous area without BBP training. That includes crime-scene cleaners, who must also remove the biohazardous waste in properly marked containers for disposal at an approved site. There are no such standards in B.C.

Dick also consults regularly with members of ABRA, and he has developed his own in-house training manual based on U.S. standards. James and his wife went to Los Angeles for their training and received eye-opening exposure to crime scenes in one of the most violent cities in the U.S. “It was great hands-on training because their crime and trauma scene cleaning is really busy down there,” he says.

There are no regulations defining professional qualifications, nor are there any regulations defining acceptable outcomes; once the workers have cleaned up a site, the client has no recourse if the site was not adequately cleaned of potential contaminants.

“You have to remember that our concentration is on the safety of workers,” says Clark. “As long as the workers are safe – they may not do a very good job cleaning up this site, but as long as they’re safe, that’s fine. And if they don’t clean up the site, of course there are consequences down the road: other people might be exposed, which I guess we are also concerned about,” he adds, explaining that the workers are responsible for their own safety, while the burden of finding someone to clean up these messes falls on the owner of the property.

That’s what has Dick, Woronuik and James worried. For example, if someone dies in their rental apartment and isn’t found for several days, a cleaner will have to come in and disinfect the areas, as decomposition will be an issue. In this case, the property manager or his or her insurance company (provided they have insurance that covers these incidents) will likely be responsible for the cleaning cost. While whoever is hired will be subject to WorkSafeBC regulations aimed at protecting staff working with biohazard material, there’s no guarantee the site itself will be adequately cleaned.

For public property, sometimes first responders are the cleaners, explains Const. Lindsey Houghton of the Vancouver Police Department. “The VPD has no budget for any kind of cleanup, nor are we responsible,” he says in an email. “We do, however, recognize that cleanup is necessary, so if it’s something simple then officers will clean up what they can.” If it’s public property, such as a roadway, he explains, the police will call upon the fire department to wash or flush away any liquids – including blood – as best they can. “In the case of heavier messes, outside sources would be contacted for their assistance,” Houghton adds. For example, if there were a crime scene in a public park, the first responders would contact a representative of whatever public body is responsible for that park.

But for private-property owners, “For a lot of people out there they don’t know where to turn,” says Graham Dick. And they have no way of knowing who might be qualified to deal with trauma scenes involving biohazards. The three companies contacted for this story suggest potential clients do their research. One way could be calling VictimLink BC, a B.C.-government-funded program for victims and witnesses of violent crime. They also suggest asking for references from previous clients, or contacting the better business bureau.

This level of cleaning comes with what some would consider a hefty price tag – cleaning up a crime scene that involves biohazards can run anywhere from $250 to several thousand dollars depending on the job. But doing the job properly incurs considerable overhead, including the cost of proper medical-waste disposal, insurance and protective gear for employees, not to mention extensive and ongoing training, which can include travel outside the province or buying online courses.

Nevertheless, Woronuik says that if people are set up properly, they can still make a good income. “But they won’t be driving around in Ferraris or taking lavish vacations,” he adds.

Both James and Dick echo Woronuik’s words, saying they got into this job to help people, not to get rich quick. And while they admit the money is pretty good, the financial compensation doesn’t always make up for the gruesome scenes these workers have to endure.

All three men agree on the most stomach-churning aspect of the job: the smell. Each has his own trick to deal with the pungent odours, from breathing through their mouths to more elaborate measures. “We keep a jar of Vicks on hand and if it’s bad, you can rub a bit under your nose,” admits James. “An old school trick is to take some old coffee grounds and burn them in a frying pan and wave that around the room and that helps.”

Woronuik, on the other hand, says that as unpleasant as it is, smell can often help him assess a scene, so unless he has to wear protective gear for health reasons, he gets right in there and sniffs out the situation.

It’s clear this is a physically demanding profession, but the mental demands on cleaners specializing in crime scenes are also significant. The three business owners admit that what they see daily is not for the faint of heart or mind, and there is a level of compassion that comes along with doing this job because these cleaners are literally left picking up the pieces of an often tragic situation.

“We’re left dealing with the family and there have been times when I’ve sat at the dining room table with the sister of the deceased and cried with them because, what else do you do?” says Dick.

“You sometimes think: what am I doing here?” admits Woronuik. “But then you think about what it will look like after and how grateful the family members will be, and it’s worth it.”