Many cleaning tools used by professional janitorial services carry labels boasting that they are “ergonomic”. Perhaps it is a mop with a hand-contoured grip or color-coded cleaning cloths. It could be a backpack vacuum that eliminates the strain of pushing a heavy upright.
But ergonomics is more than tools that make us comfortable. It is a Master of Sciences degree. Experts draw on knowledge from many fields, such as biomechanics, mechanical engineering, kinesiology, physiology and psychology, to create the ideal working environment for worker productivity and wellbeing.
Ergonomics first showed up in the 19th century when Frederick Winslow Taylor tripled his workers’ productivity by changing the size and shape of their coal shovels. Later, in the 20th century, bricklayers went from laying 120 bricks an hour to 350 due to the work of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth in reducing unnecessary movements by the bricklayers. The life-saving potential of ergonomics was realized when, in 1943, the U.S. Army changed the controls in their airplane cockpits to be more logical and user friendly, reducing fatal pilot errors.
Ergonomists streamline every element of a process reducing wasted time, strain to the body, and common mistakes. They find any avenue to improve productivity, while protecting the comfort and safety of the user.
A High-Risk Occupation
“Janitors and building cleaners have one of the highest work-related injury rates.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics paints a bleak picture of janitorial job safety in their 2012 Occupational Outlook Handbook1. It’s no wonder. Janitorial work can be hard on the body, requiring climbing, reaching, lifting and pouring, in addition to working with various tools and equipment.
According to the Bureau’s latest data in “Non-Fatal Injuries and Illnesses Requiring Days Away from Work, 2010”2, janitors and cleaners (excluding housekeepers and maids) are injured at a rate of 246.3 incidents per 10,000 workers – more than twice the average national rate of 118 incidents per 10,000 workers. The median amount of missed work for injured janitorial workers is seven days.
The majority of these injuries are sprains, strains and tears, accounting for 47 percent. Next, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), also called “ergonomic injuries”, account for 30 percent of all non-fatal injuries in the janitorial industry requiring days away from work. Another common cause of injury for janitors is overexertion.
MSDs affect the body’s muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments and nerves, and develop over time on the job due to factors in the work itself or the work environment. Accordingly, MSDs have longer recovery periods, and the median amount of missed work for a janitor or cleaner with a work-related MSD is ten days.
According to the National Safety Council, common types of injuries associated with poor ergonomic design include strains, sprains, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, ganglion cysts, tennis elbow, chronic back pain, and trigger finger.
Perhaps the most alarming statistic is that the public sector incident rate for janitorial workers is three times the rate in the private sector. For all industries, the private sector rate is two-thirds the public sector rate.
This sobering disparity should make public sector custodial managers take a second look at their working environment, as their employees are three times more likely to be injured on the job. What factors in the public sector environment cause this?
All janitorial managers need to be aware of the inherent risks in cleaning tasks and arm their workers with ergonomic equipment, tools, and techniques to reduce the risk of work-related injuries.
Avoiding Ergonomic Injury One Task at a Time
Not everyone can dedicate their time and energy to closely scrutinizing cleaning tasks. Fortunately, people like Chris Bourdages of Frontline Ergonomics have tackled parts of the cleaning process to determine risk factors.
Bourdages conducted a study to help a school district that had a high incident rate of carpal tunnel syndrome in the janitorial staff. He filmed custodial staff on the job and analyzed the footage for risk factors. He found that dry and wet mopping exposes janitors to risk factors for carpal tunnel syndrome on a daily basis.
Heavy and unwieldy cotton mops force employees to grip forcefully and flex both wrists for prolonged periods of time in order to clean thoroughly. It is this deviation of the wrists that puts employees through unnecessary strain and increases risk of injury. Bourdages recommends disposing of dry mops and replacing them with backpack vacuums (like the ProTeam® backpack vacuum pictured, for example).
“The most impressive part of the vacuum besides its power and functionality is the aluminum wand. The wand is very light, and it keeps the wrist(s) mainly in a neutral posture,” said Bourdages. “The light weight of the wand means that minimal force is required when vacuuming the floors.”
The ergonomic design of vacuums like ProTeam’s backpack vacuums make them the choice of professional commercial janitorial services who use a standardized cleaning system.
Safety on the Mind
In standardized cleaning systems, workers immediately have an edge against ergonomic injuries, because every element of the process has been chosen based on its effectiveness with the worker in mind. The real danger comes when workers accept age-old cleaning practices without thinking critically, or when managers fail to listen to workers who have physical complaints.
Even when using ergonomic tools, janitors should pay close attention to their bodies for any signs of a developing injury. Ergonomic conditions are best dealt with when they are caught early. According to the National Safety Council, common symptoms include pain, swelling, numbness, tingling, tenderness, clicking, and loss of grip strength.
In the quest for a safe working environment, the studies of ergonomists and the crucible of standardized cleaning can reveal safer tools, techniques and equipment. However, the onus is on professional janitorial services and their janitors to maintain an open dialogue about work safety so that concerns are addressed before someone gets hurt.
1 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, Janitors and Building Cleaners, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/building-and-grounds-cleaning/janitors-and-building-cleaners.htm (visited June 04, 2012).
2 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses in cooperation with participating State agencies, Non-Fatal Injuries and Illnesses Requiring Days Away from Work, 2010, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/news.release/archives/osh2_11092011.htm (visited June 04, 2012).
ProTeam® celebrates 25 years with the Scholarship Essay Contest. From May 1 to June 30, a cleaning professional or dependent can enter to win one of three $1,000 scholarships. Compose an original 300- to 500-word essay on the topic “Why I Want to be the Recipient of a ProTeam Scholarship” and submit it along with a name and email address to the ProTeam Facebook contest page www.facebook.com/ProTeamVacuums, or to email@example.com. Full contest details and rules are at www.pro-team.com/contest.
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