Warning: This story contains images and descriptions that some people may find upsetting.
Lucy, Seb and Tom are on the final day of their training to become specialist ‘trauma cleaners’ – a service that most of us will, with any luck, never need to use.
These ‘hygiene specialists’ see the goriest, darkest side of society: after a murder or a suicide takes place, these are the people sent in to clean up after the emergency services have removed the body.
“If there’s something to be seen, we’ve seen it,” says Mark Baxter, manager of the National Academy Of Crime Scene Cleaners, which runs the training.
“There was one gentleman who was found in the bath with the hot water tap running for a long time and that basically meant the body flesh was stripped from the individual.”
Baxter has seen plenty of blood and guts in his time. Shotgun suicides are the “most horrific”, he says, “because of where the body matter will end up. It could be anywhere, on the ceiling, on the walls and it’s under force so that obviously creates a greater issue.”
The National Academy Of Crime Scene Cleaners (NACSC) website gives a further flavour of what trauma cleaners deal with, with a horrifying list of scenarios they respond to: “Natural death, suicide, hanging, drug overdose, murder, and decompositions.”
But they don’t only deal with deaths. If a property has been turned into a drug lab, or a hoarder has passed away, someone must be tasked with returning it to a habitable state quickly and sensitively. That’s where Lucy, Seb and Tom will come in.
The tools of the trade include needle-resistant gloves, bio-hazard sacks, and a cleaning liquid so powerful it will “dissolve and emulsify soiling and even remove old floor polish”.
Stating the obvious, Baxter says this isn’t a job for someone “if you don’t think you’ve got the stomach for it,” before describing how he once found a bath “full of faeces”.
While trauma cleaners have always been in demand, they have reached a broader audience through American shows such as How Clean Is Your Crime Scene?
Much of their work comes via police forces around the country and as such, what they witness reflects some of the more distressing trends in the country.
“It’s a bit cliche but we’re almost like a fourth or fifth emergency service,” says Baxter. “Death is something that is a natural conclusion to everybody, but it’s also a sad indictment of society.
The three-day training course run by Baxter’s NACSC culminates with a day at an old barn outside Bristol, set up to replicate some of the scenes the budding trauma cleaners may have to deal with.
First up is a kitchen set to look like a property recently vacated by drug users. Needles litter the floor and spots of (fake) blood dot the surfaces. Baxter walks the group through how to approach the scene – slowly, carefully and being vigilant for booby-traps.
“Booby-trapping is something you mainly get in drug-related crimes or drug-related incidents,” Baxter explains. “A property will be deliberately left to try and catch the people out that are coming in, maybe to safeguard certain areas, but normally they want to try and catch out the authorities.”
The trainees pick their way through, successfully spotting needles hidden under a wall-mounted cupboard and a fire extinguisher.
So why on earth would you want to work as a trauma cleaner? Tom Goode from Canterbury works for a cleaning company run by his father. He told HuffPost UK: “I watched a programme actually on Netflix called How Clean Is Your Crime Scene? It’s brilliant, a huge company in America and it shows you the nitty gritty side of it and I thought there’s money there and I love cleaning, so why not?
“The booby-traps were a bit of a surprise. When you actually think about that, needles being put behind light switches, in sockets, underneath chairs, it does make you aware that in everyday life you’ve got to be careful. We could walk into anywhere and there could be needles or blood, so nothing has really put me off.”
By becoming NACSC-certified, trauma cleaners are given access to numerous resources, including counsellors. Baxter says this helps prepare them “for what you’re dealing with, so that you remain professional throughout.” The most affecting cases, he says, are those involving children. “That’s obviously a sad situation, especially if you’ve got kids.”
Lucy Indge, a supermarket cleaner from Abergavenny also being trained by Baxter, explains she has one quality that will put her in good stead: “I haven’t got that good a sense of smell, for one.
“There can sometimes be ears and leftover body bits which I didn’t think would be there. I thought they’d have to go with the body, but no, apparently not, we’ll still find the odd body part.”
Trauma cleaning doesn’t require special qualifications, but the NACSC was established in 2009 to professionalise the industry, and the course is now recognised by police forces around the UK.
As well as teaching how to dispose of a blood-soaked mattress or a Hepatitis-infected needle, the course emphasises the importance of the sensitivities of customer service in this line of work.
Seb Jones from Lichfield runs his own car-valeting service and is on the training course to expand his business. He says: “You have to approach people in a very courteous manner – it is a terrible time in their lives. And also, you have to think how you would want to be treated.”
For Baxter, while there are many aspects to the job that are truly grim, it’s the satisfaction of a job well done that makes it worthwhile. “We will often find things in as house they didn’t know were there and so we’ve given them a bit of their history they didn’t know about,” says Baxter.
“We can give them addresses of people they’ve lost touch with, all of those things mean we’re providing a very good service but it’s also rewarding to us because we think we’re actually improving someone’s life.”