Increase Safety With Updated Equipment And Training
American workers spend about 2,000 hours a year on the job. For cleaners, much of that time is spent bending, pushing and using chemicals, all of which can pose big safety threats.

Address safety issues to avoid illness and injury in your business. Common problems include skin or lung irritation from direct contact with or inhalation of chemicals, vision and hearing loss, and back injuries from falling.

“There are also hidden costs of having someone injured on the job,” says Jeff Hicks, an industrial hygienist with Exponent, an engineering and scientific consulting firm based in Menlo Park, Calif. “Injuries can negatively affect worker compensation costs, employee downtime, employee turnover and new employee training.”

Eye injuries alone cost American businesses more than $300 million per year in lost production time, medical expenses and worker compensation.

In addition to all the other expenses, safety violations can also lead to an inspection by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and a resulting fine.

Prevent injuries
The headache and expense of safety problems can be eliminated by taking common-sense precautions, offering a comprehensive employee education program and reviewing practices and procedures regularly.

First, every cleaner should use a basic set of personal protective equipment (PPE). Safety glasses and chemical-impervious gloves are must-haves when cleaning restrooms. Supportive, low-heeled, close-toed shoes and and long pants are a safe bet. Additional equipment may be needed when called for by Material Safety Data Sheets. This may include a face shield, chemical-impervious apron or even a respirator.

The recent changes in safety equipment have made it easier to convince workers to use PPE. Safety glasses are more attractive, now made of lightweight materials and featuring adjustable temples for a more comfortable fit. Gloves have also become lighter and more flexible. Gloves now can be latex-free and/or accelerator-free, to help reduce the risk of developing or agitating contact dermatitis.

Similarly, workers are happier with the new cleaning equipment, which is lightweight and easy to use thanks to ergonomically correct designs. Safety is now an integral part of equipment design. Most equipment now has safety switches. Another development is the telescopic handle on dusters, which eliminates the need to stand on ladders or chairs, which could lead to falls.

Chemicals also have undergone a makeover. Many now are more environmentally sound and user friendly. Fewer chemicals are needed to do the same job as older products, and many new chemicals come in dilution-controlled units that reduce over-use.

Education is key
Although PPE devices and safer products and equipment are essential to protect against hazards, they still require thorough training.

Unfortunately, some cleaning companies don’t train employees thoroughly on safety issues.

“The janitorial staffs often are clueless about these things,” says Hicks. “Often it is because they are out of sight, out of mind. They come in at night, and they only may handle off-the-shelf cleaners, so managers assume their risk is low. That is a mistake.”

The most often violated workplace safety requirement in the industry last year was for poor hazard communication, costing cleaners nearly $17,000 in fines. A good training program must not only provide necessary instructions for handling potentially dangerous situations, but also must ensure workers review that information and understand it. For example, a cleaner should learn what to do if a chemical gets in her eye or how to react to a spill (should she mop up the spill or evacuate the building?).

PPE violations — failure to supply workers with the right equipment or their failure to wear it during necessary times — were the third most costly OSHA fine for cleaners last year. Training can make a difference in reducing these incidents as well. For instance, managers need to inform workers that when using an ammonia-based chemical that requires them to wear a mask, paper masks will not suffice. The vapors can penetrate the mask if it isn’t made of the right material.

As part of regular training, BSCs should provide ergonomically sound PPE and explain how and when to use them.

Proper PPE training can also help eliminate one of the most pervasive problems in the industry: slip-and-fall injuries.

“Proper footwear will go a long way in reducing these injuries,” Sandy Hammers, president of Sparkling Klean in Omaha, Neb. “This may include traction-bottom booties that fit over shoes when stripping a floor.”

Another aspect of training that is vital involves proper use of cleaning tools, equipment and chemicals. BSCs should give cleaners a personnel awareness of, and control over, ergonomic conditions. They should avoid repetitive motion, for instance, which can cause carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, myalgia and more.

In addition to ergonomics, BSCs should teach simple rules that help make an areas being cleaned safer for the workers and others in the vicinity. Workers should close off or barricade areas they clean, when possible. At minimum, they should surround cleaning areas with caution signs visible from all angles. Other tips include: keep materials and debris off the floor to avoid tripping over them; use sliders to move heavy furniture; don’t carry items that you cannot see over; and never run up or down stairways.

Finally, tighter security and emergency preparedness have become critical issues in the last year. Training should include evacuation procedures, such as where to go and how to account for all employees during potential emergencies.

Review and revise
Safety training, policies and procedures need regular evaluation and upgrading. Modifications often are necessary because of rapidly changing laws and improvements in equipment.

For example, OSHA soon will present ergonomic guidelines for repetitive motion injuries. In preparation, cleaning companies should review their current practices to check for avoidable repetitive motions. Some employers even may want to consult an ergonomics professional to analyze specific working conditions and make recommendations.

When reviewing your education program, be certain that it meets the needs of all your employees. This is a growing concern because of the increasing number of non-English-speaking workers employed in the cleaning industry.

“I’ve heard stories of a new janitor coming on board, and the employer sits them in front of the TV for half an hour to watch a videotape in a language that he cannot understand,” Hicks says.

Poor working conditions are bad news for both employee and employer. A partnership among staff and management can help both parties reduce physical suffering and associated costs.

Becky Mollenkamp is a writer and editor based in Des Moines, Iowa