While the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s proposed workplace ergonomics standard was shot down earlier this year, it seems many players in the building services industry continue to take a closer look at protecting workers’ health.

Many building service contractors and their suppliers specifically have taken a closer look at repetitive motions that could injure cleaning workers, adjusting how they clean and what tools they use.

“Ergonomics involves making employees comfortable and safe while they work, by designing equipment and processes that integrate with the body to allow low-stress activity for extended periods,” says Chris Murray, an engineer at Boise, Idaho-based Pro-Team, Inc.

Any full-time cleaning employee will tell you that bending, stooping, twisting, and lifting are not only tiresome, but also take their toll on the human body after long periods.

Research confirms this. Worker’s compensation costs total as much as $60 billion annually, according to statistics complied by the U.S. Department of Labor in 1998. For example, a single, initial back injury to an employee results in a total average cost of $11,000 in worker’s compensation. And added research has concluded that the fourth-most dangerous occupation for women is being a custodian, due to the extremely high rates of back injury.

Because lowering injury rates, improving safety and making jobs easier for workers is of prime importance, the cleaning industry has begun to pay greater attention to ergonomics.

“There has not been a tremendous amount of change in the industry until the last 3 or 4 years, when ergonomics issues have been emphasized to a greater degree,” says Bob Robinson Sr., president of Hamilton, Ohio-based manufacturing company Kaivac.

Robinson knows firsthand the stresses of cleaning. In order to learn how to train employees in proper cleaning techniques, he and his salespeople volunteered to clean the local high school’s restrooms for a month. That experience convinced him that the industry needed to create tools that are easier and safer to use.

“Any cleaning motion that is repetitive has the potential to lead to injury, especially those with awkward posturing,” explains John Irwin, vice president of product development for Impact Products, a manufacturer based in Toledo, Ohio. “Dusting can lead to back strain as workers reach for high areas or stoop for low ones. Mopping may cause carpal tunnel syndrome in the wrists, and heavy lifting can strain the arms, shoulders and the back.”

Even common items such as aerosol cans can cause user fatigue.

“Constant, daily use of any tool can be problematic, and professionals who are using glass cleaner, disinfectants and other sprays all day, every day, are more at risk of repetitive-stress injuries,” adds Ron DeSimone, director of corporate marketing for Chase Products Co., Broadview, Ill.

As the cleaning industry work force ages, ergonomic issues become even more important.

“We need to create cleaning methods that are easier on workers’ bodies as they age,” Bob Robinson Sr., president of Hamilton, Ohio-based manufacturing company Kaivac, says.

Ergonomic innovations
Advances in ergonomics have led to substantial product innovation, and many new cleaning tools designed to increase safety have been introduced. For example, Kaivac has designed a restroom-cleaning machine that serves as a combination pressure washer, wet vacuum system, chemical proportioner and blower.

Instead of requiring workers to squat, lean back, lift, and apply pressure for cleaning agitation, the machine employs a “point and shoot” method geared toward reducing employee fatigue. The machine also is designed with a mop bucket fitted with a hook that allows workers to easily tip dirty water into a toilet for disposal, rather than having to lift and carry the bucket back to a janitor’s closet for emptying.

Aerosol cans also have received a recent makeover. Chase Products Co. has developed a can designed to reduce stress to the user's fingers, wrist and forearm. The sculptured can is encircled by specially sized grooves to make it easier to grip and hold the can for an extended period of time, says DeSimone.

Innovations in mop technology also have been introduced. Ergonomic mop handles have been designed into an S-shape that swivels and allows the worker to turn and guide the mop more easily, reducing wrist strain. In addition, handles are equipped with grips, made from foam pads, prevent blisters.

Microfiber materials, which employ fibers 1/1000 as thick as typical cloth fibers, also reduce the amount of exertion needed to clean because less agitation is required.

Microfibers used in flat mops also result in lighter, drier mopping, explains John Walker, president of ManageMen, a Salt Lake City, Utah-based consulting company, who has been testing the technology this year. Flat mopping reduces the weight of mops by at least 50 percent, and decreases the amount of bending and stooping required, he adds.

“With flat mops, workers can clean walls, stalls, and floors with one lightweight tool,” says Walker.

The backpack vacuum is another tool ergonomics engineers have improved.

Research jointly conducted in 1998 by Battelle Memorial Institute and the Department of Surgery Division of Orthopedics at Ohio State University found that, compared to upright vacuums, backpack vacuums resulted in less body stress and required less bending. And now, reduced weight and improved harness designs have made the machines even less stressful on the body after frequent use.

Other ergonomic innovations also have had a substantial impact on the industry. Manufacturers have created longer handles for dusters, enabling workers to reach high areas without strain. Lobby dustpan handles now have an L-shape, which fits workers’ hands better than traditional, vertical ones. Dotted string-knit gloves provide cushion and offer a better grip, which helps reduce hand fatigue. Some pump-up air compression sprayers now include trigger sprayer locks that don’t require the worker to continually press down on the thumb release. And BSCs can use a new table mover to reduce lifting strain during set up, take down or relocation activities. The device placed in the middle of a table, uses casters to allow the table to be rolled rather than lifted into place.

Training ensures safety
“While continual product improvement is needed to ensure a safer and more cost-effective workplace, hands-on training in correct product usage is just as important, and can help employees adopt methods which reduce fatigue,” explains Larry Shideler, president of Pro-Team, Inc. “It’s also helpful to teach supervisors to plan the workload so that the heaviest duties are performed early in the work shift rather than later, when fatigue begins to set in and the risk of accidents increases.”

Irwin agrees.

“Training employees in proper cleaning techniques is always essential,” he states. “Employees must realize that their employer is trying to make the workplace safer and more efficient. Luckily, a lot of education usually is not required, because workers typically will see immediate benefits from ergonomically improved techniques.”

Lynne Knobloch is a frequent contributor to Contracting Profits. She is based in Mishiwaka, Ind.