As most building service contractors know, cleaning can be dangerous work. But BSCs don’t have to clean windows 60 stories up or work with corrosive floor strippers to feel the pain and strain of cleaning. Even a seemingly simple task such as vacuuming can cause serious injuries.

Typical problems

Uprights are the most commonly used type of vacuum. But used improperly, these bulky machines can injure even the most physically fit operator.

“When you’re working with an upright vacuum you tend to be a little bent over, hunched over, your arm is extended out and you have a repetitive shoulder motion of back and forth and back and forth,” says Paul Condie, director of operations for KBM Building Services, San Diego.

Common injuries associated with an upright vacuum are strains to the wrist, rotator cuffs, lower back, biceps, shoulder and elbow. The repetitive back and forth motion is responsible for giving operators carpel tunnel syndrome.

Allowing the vacuum to float out and away from the body of the operator is when strain injuries commonly occur. However, if the operator stands directly behind the machine, he can use his body weight to help thrust the vacuum forward and pull the vacuum back toward him. This will allow the operator to use his body weight as a counter weight.

Keeping the size of the employee in mind will also help avoid injuries. Putting a taller operator on a short upright is not a good idea. The difference in height will force the operator to hunch over and lose the upper body tension he needs to keep from twisting or allowing the vacuum to float. When vacuuming, operators should be sure to stand up straight.

To help avoid repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, users should switch hands. BSCs should also rotate operators between a variety of tasks to help reduce potential for injuries. Many vacuums are now designed with ergonomic handles set at proper angles to reduce strain. Handles are also being constructed out of softer materials including foam and rubber. If BSCs employ a lot of older or smaller workers, they may want to invest in lighter-weight vacuums, walk-behind sweepers or riding machines.

Are backpacks safer?

Using a backpack vacuum can greatly reduce the strain caused by an upright vacuum. First, the majority of a backpack vacuum’s weight is not being pushed by the operator’s arm, it is being supported by the operator’s hips.

Some janitors may be apprehensive about a switch to backpacks at first, so BSCs need to convince them it’s for the best. At A-1 Building Services Inc. in Wyoming, Mich, President Jim Thompson put together a team willing to give backpacks a try while his other custodians continued to use uprights. The backpack team eventually increased their productivity and decreased their injuries. After that, and especially after watching the backpack users receive raises upon their increase in productivity, his upright users jumped on the backpack bandwagon.

While the strain from pushing and pulling the weight of an entire vacuum is reduced with backpack vacuums, these machines are not without their own potential problems.

“The issues with wearing a backpack vacuum are, number one, if you’re putting one that’s large on somebody that’s small,” says Paul Senecal, president of Milford, Conn.-based United Services of America. “Second issue is not having the backpack harness properly fitted to your body.”

Making sure to strap the harness correctly will increase the ergonomic ability of the vacuum. A backpack vacuum that hangs off the back or is not properly harnessed can put strain on the operator’s back.

It is best when strapping the backpack on for the first time, to have an experienced operator help fit the harness to any new users, says Senecal. It also helps to have the same operator use the same backpack from then on.

When transitioning to backpack vacuums or when new employees are hired, it’s a good idea to hold a backpack vac training seminar. BSCs may also want to invite customers, insurance carriers and medical providers to the training sessions as well, says Condie. The customers get to see the effort it takes to clean while the insurance carriers get to see the effort a BSC makes in protecting the health of their workers and customers.



The heavy weight of the machine and its repetitive motion are not the only safety risks associated with vacuums. A machine’s cord can cause trip hazards for janitors and building occupants. In addition, after becoming damaged, cords can start fires or emit smoke from electrical shorts.

To prevent problems, building service contractors should routinely check cords for cracks or breaks. The most common way a cord gets damaged is by the operator pulling it out of the wall socket. Vacuum operators who clean larger facilities need to unplug and replug the cord, in some cases, up to several hundred times a week, making the temptation to yank it out of the wall even stronger. Also, when faced with lots of unplugging and replugging, custodians are tempted to stretch the cord tight in an attempt to reach those last couple of feet. However, stretching a cord across equipment or around corners will damage those objects or even the vacuum itself.

By taking a little extra time and effort, BSCs can help reduce users’ temptation of stretching the cord just a bit too far.

“One of the ways we cured that is by having our managers go through the medical facility and actually use color-coded stickers to mark which wall sockets get the most efficiency out of the vacuum and the cord’s reach,” says Jim Thompson of A-1 Building Services Inc.

It’s also a safety risk to replace the manufacturer’s cord with a longer one from a retail store. The new cord might not be gauged properly to the machine, says Paul Condie of KBM Building Services. An improperly gauged cord will overheat the cord itself, the vacuum motor, or even the switch. Overheated switches also have been known to cause fires.

Gabriel Phillips is a freelance writer based in Union Grove, Wis.