Canister, backpack, upright – these are the vacuum choices that confront building service contractors everyday. And while each model has its own benefits, each has another set of characteristics that should also be considered when selecting the appropriate vacuum: safety and ergonomic features.

First, the benefits. Canister vacuums feature a wand and long hose, with a power head in some cases, connected to a body on wheels. They have high vacuuming power and carry large-capacity bags; they work well for cleaning non-carpeted surfaces. Since these vacuums can be heavy and difficult to move around impediments such as furniture, columns, and other large objects, they are better suited for small areas.

“For stairs, canister vacuums are a good choice because they are stable and it is easier to use the power head to clean the steps and risers. Canister vacuums are considered to be a better choice for cleaning smooth floor surfaces,” says Scott Robinson, director of safety services for American Building Maintenance, San Francisco.

Backpack vacuums provide the greatest amount of mobility. They are worn on the back with a harness and feature a body with a hose and wand and are good machines for cleaning elevated surfaces.

“Clearly, where areas to be cleaned are specific – doorways, sills, and others – and distributed over large areas, backpack vacuums are a good choice,” says Robinson.

Upright vacuums are another common choice. Unlike canister vacuums, the entire machine has to be pushed back and forth as the unit is all one piece, similar to a standard home vacuum.

“For large floor areas, upright vacuums are a good choice. Upright vacuums are generally considered to be a better choice for cleaning carpeted surfaces,” says Robinson.

Fighting fatigue
Each type of vacuum, with its specific benefits, also creates fatigue for the user in its own way.

“Canister vacuums can be difficult to maneuver around furniture and require constant attention as the canister is pulled along with the vacuum head. They tend to be heavier and somewhat awkward to carry,” says Robinson.

Backpack vacuums have a very specific contributor to fatigue that the other model types do not have: They are actually worn by the operator.

“Backpack vacuums are sometimes tough on the back of the user because they are worn. As the vacuum gets full, it gets heavier and puts strain on the user,” says Mauricio Sanchez, head of training for United Contract Services Inc., based in California.

Upright vacuums, a good choice in most carpeting situations, can be taxing on the user in another way.

“Upright vacuums cause the user to become fatigued because the entire unit must be pushed back and forth by the user, and this repetitive motion can cause not only fatigue but also cause injury if not done correctly,” says Alan Bigger, director of building services at University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

“The use of a vacuum cleaner provides a good example of how force, repetition, and posture can contribute to fatigue,” adds Robinson. “Ergonomic features vary from brand to brand and address a variety of issues, including gripping strength, rolling resistance, and design/placement of controls. All vacuums require grasping a handle or nozzle while extending and flexing the wrist and elbow while pushing and pulling the unit.

“With respect to safety, all vacuum types can present lifting hazards due to their weight. Noise can be an issue, and efficient control of captured dust is important. Much depends on the design of the unit and the circumstances in which it is to be used,” Robinson adds.

Certain measures can be taken to avoid fatigue.

“Clearly, all features of a given vacuum should be working properly to help prevent fatigue,” Robinson says. “For example, if the vacuum has a ‘self-propelling’ system, it should be working properly. Noise will contribute to fatigue, and the vacuum may become noisier – and less efficient – if the intake or exhaust ducting becomes clogged. The vacuum will become less efficient if the collection system becomes overfilled.”

As with most machinery, the proper maintenance and use will greatly affect the performance of the machine, and the more functional the machine, the more efficient the janitor will be.

“I think it is very important that the user understands the machine and uses it properly,” Bigger says. “With a backpack the most important is a proper fit; the vacuum should be worn so the harness supports the unit properly. In the case of an upright, you need to keep it emptied for maximum efficiency and weight.”

Repetitive-stress injuries
In addition to fatigue, repetitive-stress injuries can be another common problem with workers using vacuums. Grasping a handle or nozzle during use results in repeated flexion and extension of the wrist and elbow, Robinson says. Depending on the force, posture and duration required to do the job, the use of a vacuum can be a factor in a repetitive-motion injury.

These are not the only factors, though.

“Back strain can occur while using a vacuum,” Robinson adds. “In addition to the weight of the vacuum, there is also the issue of how well the vacuum design ‘fits’ the person using it. For example, a very tall person might have to bend over to grasp the handle of a vacuum cleaner. Likewise, a very short person might have to grasp the vacuum handle in a manner that is awkward and that requires extreme extension or flexion of the wrist or elbow. Additionally, the repeated pushing and pulling of the unit, presuming it is a canister or upright vacuum, can result in injury. All vacuum types can present lifting hazards due to their weight, so it is a good idea to provide storage space that does not involve lifting the vacuum to stow it,” says Robinson.

There are a few ways to limit repetitive stress injuries, but with the nature of the job come some repetitive situations that cannot be avoided.

“Try to vary the way you use a piece of equipment, switch hands, change directions and patterns,” says Sanchez.

Another factor in preventing injuries is general health.

“If your staff is in good shape and not overweight and is properly conditioned, then injuries are much less common,” says Bigger.

For the most part, contractors should be able to find all three models at a price and performance level they want, so it comes down to evaluating their situation and staff, and choosing accordingly. They also need to train their staff on the safe and proper way to use and maintain their machine. Following these simple hints will save more than money — they also will save worker health.

D.M. Maas is a business writer in Casper, Wyo.