Ergonomics, the applied science of equipment design to maximize productivity by reducing operator fatigue and discomfort, is a major consideration for any manufacturer in the cleaning industry. From equipment to hand products, ergonomics plays a role in the creation and development of the tools used every day by janitorial workers. The science means something different for each company, and involves a complex process with many considerations that include comfort, safety, cost, productivity and even user pleasure.

The approach for each manufacturer is also unique, ranging from extremely scientific — with a team of researchers and sophisticated testing techniques — to systems based more on common sense.

Despite the differing approaches, experts agree that building service contractors will best benefit from investing in ergonomic products and machines if they are willing to be consistent and meticulous about training employees on how to use them correctly.

In Development
Initially, science, engineering and creativity come together when a new product is developed. While ergonomics always plays some type of role, that role is dictated by product specifications and the company, as well as by the users.

“Manufacturers have become much more aware of ergonomics and the comfort of the operator,” says Julie Hartz of Pacific Floor Care, Muskegon, Mich. “Although most manufacturers are still trying to improve and update their products appropriately, the bottom line is that operators have input with their management on the equipment that is purchased.”

Customer feedback is integral to product development, so it’s important for BSCs to know the opinions of their workers. Many manufacturers spend a great deal of time and money soliciting feedback from purchasers.

Research and testing of products with customers is critical for Rubbermaid Commercial Products, Winchester, Va. As a result of that process, says Industrial Design Manager Reneau Van Landingham, the company develops “end-user-driven ergonomic solutions.”

“We strive to really do thorough research with our end users to understand the problems they have because we don’t mop floors all day and we don’t take out refuse all day, but they do, so we spend a lot of time doing research with them,” Van Landingham says.

“The key target is what the customer wants, so to be able to receive that feedback or actually go out and elicit feedback, is a key part of what any company that does good design work needs to do,” adds Shawn Wright, soft floor product manager at Clarke, Springdale, Ariz.

Common feedback centers on comfort and safety, as those are obvious ergonomic factors impacting user satisfaction. Ergonomic designs are of interest to BSCs because of the effects they have on worker productivity, health and even turnover. A product with the right fit can mean a world of difference to users; likewise, a product that does not fit correctly or comfortably can have negative health consequences ranging from discomfort and fatigue to injury.

User comfort is by far the most common concern cited by ergonomics experts — and it should be, as it’s one of the biggest factors in job satisfaction, productivity and injury-prevention.

Purchasers such as BSCs are not interested in owning equipment their workers do not want to use.
Equipment needs to be comfortable for a wide variety of people to use. At Nilfisk-Advance Inc., Plymouth, Minn., for example, equipment is designed for the 95th percentile of the human range of motion, meaning 95 percent of people should be able to use it. That’s good news for BSCs, who want equipment to be utilized by most if not all of their workers.

Many considerations are made, from seat height and length to users’ possible arm and leg lengths, says Advance’s Brian Simmons, product manager. Safety is one of a number of issues connected to comfort, he adds.

“Safety is preventing injuries on the job and designing the safest equipment to operate,” says Simmons. “It’s about making products that are intuitive to use.”

Product performance and ergonomics go hand-in-hand at ProTeam, Boise, Idaho, which manufactures backpack vacuums, says Billy Mitchell, director of marketing. Wearing equipment makes comfort a necessity; if users can’t wear a vacuum, the product’s performance doesn’t matter because it won’t be used.

“If they can’t wear the backpack properly you can have the best vacuum on the planet and no one would use it because it’s not ergonomically friendly,” Mitchell says.

High turnover in the industry creates the need for tools that are easy to use correctly, and do not require many hours of training. BSCs need simple solutions to integrating ergonomics into products, says Bruno Niklaus, vice president of global marketing for Unger Enterprises, Bridgeport, Conn.

The key, he says, is not to get too scientific. The company had produced very complicated and scientifically advanced products that were extremely costly — and in the end, those products were not often purchased despite their quality.

“So a simple solution which works, from our experience, comes from almost common sense,” Niklaus says. “Actually, the challenge is to get as simple as possible products out there and not make them so they’re impossible to use.”

One size does not fit all — and that concept is one of the biggest challenges for manufacturers, says Mitchell. The wide variety of users out there makes it impossible to have that mindset. Testing products on different body sizes is therefore crucial.

For many manufacturers, buyer and user input augments the environment of change in the industry, which also provides impetus for new product development.
“We use a lot of feedback and really, what drives the design and innovation of new products are industry demands and trends,” says Maureen Newman, vice president of diversified markets at Mr. Longarm, Greenwood, Mo.

Following and Setting Trends
Trends in ergonomics in many cases are linked to trends that affect the industry as a whole, such as green cleaning, worker health and technology.

“I think the trend in ergonomics is coinciding with the trend in green, so things are become more efficient — weight, performance, energy usage, lower watts, longer life — and (we’re) getting real sustainability out of products,” Mitchell says.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency definition of a green product is one that reduces impacts on human health or the environment, says Wright, and to Clarke, ergonomics is the first step in reducing those health impacts.

“Our first step is to think about the operator of the piece of equipment,” Wright says. “I want to reduce the impact of my equipment on him and also the impact on the surrounding areas as well. So to us it ties right into the green movement.”

For equipment manufacturers, noise is an aspect of ergonomics — and noise reduction is the goal. That opens possibilities for day cleaning, when unobtrusiveness is key, says Hartz.

Products with lowered decibel levels can be used when necessary and not just at specific times, she says.

“For example, if an area needs to be vacuumed, it can be done when needed without interrupting the customer’s normal business routine,” adds Hartz.

Pitch and frequency of equipment noise can make all the difference in the world to a cleaning worker, says Jeff Johnson, manager of global marketing at Tennant Company, Minneapolis.

“All of our machines are much, much quieter than they ever have been in the past so we’re putting more money into our machines to reduce the noise and reducing the noise level in the operator’s ear is an ergonomic positive,” he says.

Technology has allowed ergonomics to become more sophisticated, Johnson continues. Tennant uses a specialized software program to simulate range of motion and highlight areas that could cause excess fatigue or muscle strain.

Advances in product material have paved the way for much lighter and more durable products and equipment. Reducing the weight of a mop, for instance, by moving from wet mops to microfiber, can make a huge difference to the user.

“We strive to develop lightweight products, so the issue of weight is really important because back injuries are one of the biggest workman’s comp claims out there and so we develop a number of products that speak to that need,” says Van Landingham.

Moving away from metals and toward plastics is also a significant trend, making products easier to move and transport as well as easier for users to operate.

Once a product has been developed, tested and approved, it must then be used in the proper way to ensure the ergonomic benefits. Everyone has his or her own set behaviors and movements, and it can be difficult to change them. But if training isn’t completed or remembered, workers are likely to use equipment and products in an inefficient and unsafe way.

“That’s the whole key, the word training,” says Barry Brown, corporate product training manager at Continental Commercial Products, Bridgeton, Mo. “If you don’t have supervision (for employees) and a reinforcement program to maintain training on a regular basis, then the least resistance is the path they will seek. Sometimes ergonomics is not the easiest way to do it. It’s always the easiest way that the worker can find to completing their task.”

Also, improper use of products can result in worker injury, affecting BSCs’ bottom line through worker’s compensation.
“A big thing in ergonomics is to avoid workman’s compensation,” says Niklaus. “A product is good but training is almost crucial to teach them continuously a better way and a more efficient way and a more healthy way for cleaners to use their tools, it really is crucial.”

BSCs need to invest in training, despite turnover, he adds.

Ergonomically designed products can affect BSCs and their workers in many different ways, positively impacting worker health, happiness and productivity and thus protecting the bottom line.

“Productivity is tied into health and into cost savings and the benefit of that is ergonomics, so we’re actually reducing potential body injury, which is what ergonomics is essentially all about,” Brown says. “It’s just that it’s evolved into something greater than just injuries to the worker.”