If you had to name the most dangerous occupation in the U.S., what would you pick? Police officer? Bomb squad member? Deep sea fisherman? One publication I read recently suggested street vendors in Hong Kong were at the top of the list. American experts often report that convenience-store workers are at the greatest risk.

While janitorial work may not seem as dangerous as, say, skydiving, there are numerous injuries and a few deaths reported in this profession each year. In 1997, the federal government reported 22 fatalities in janitorial occupations. Assaults, falls and exposure to hazardous chemicals led the list of causes. In 2000, the number of fatalities rose to 30.

Granted, with thousands of custodial workers in this country, those numbers may seem small. But I can’t help wondering why some companies are willing to put their most valuable resource – their employees – at risk for serious injuries or even death, when the vast majority of cases can be avoided.

A friend of mine in the insurance business once said safety is something a lot of people talk about, but nobody does much about. Looking at these statistics, I wonder if he’s right.

Sobering statistics
How are cleaning employees hurt on the job? Falls are the leading cause of injury, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics . And they’re expensive, too — these types of injuries cost employers more than $11 billion a year. On the bottom end of the scale, repetitive motion injuries ran up expenses of more than $2 billion.

One industry report states back injuries will cost a BSC $11,000 for the first injury and $5,000 apiece for every subsequent back ailment.

Injuries to the muscles, ligaments and joints are called musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs. Typically, these injuries involve the arms and back, from motions such as improper sweeping, vacuuming or lifting. When government statisticians tracked the incidences of these kinds of injuries they found janitors rank among the top five occupations for developing MSDs. More than $15 billion in workers compensation claims are spent on MSDs.

These numbers lead to an obvious question each BSC should ask: can you afford to do business as usual when it comes to the health and safety of your employees?

Processes and procedures
I recently attended a symposium where several large organizations presented papers regarding how they have improved their custodial operations.

One of the presenters was Mary Vosevich, the physical plant director at the University of New Mexico. The Albuquerque school has reduced job injuries that resulted in work loss by more than 81 percent. On top of that, the school has increased the number of square feet each custodian cleans from 27,000 square feet to 32,000 square feet. The school has also cut chemical costs by almost 75 percent.

Cleaning managers from the Sandia National Labs, also in New Mexico, say they haven’t had a single lost work day since April of 2001.

What can contractors learn from these companies? It’s simple: they are saving serious money by adopting cleaning processes that improve employee safety. And there’s an added bonus — the quality of cleaning has improved.

The success of a safer workplace
Sandia National Laboratories near Los Alamos, Texas has more than 3 million cleanable feet of area spread between 480 buildings. When customers complained about the quality of and consistency of cleaning, Sandia officials transitioned from a zone strategy to a team approach. That transition included specialist training for cleaning workers, ergonomic tools and state-of-the-art equipment. It also gave managers more control of cleaning chemicals.

What happened after the transition was amazing. Sandia reduced injuries and eliminated lost work days. Lop-sided work assignments were also eliminated. Cleaning managers distributed jobs by specialties. The transition also reduced chemical and equipment inventories.

Sandia has saved thousands of dollars and created a safer workplace without impacting quality. In fact, customers report cleaner buildings.

The University of New Mexico reports similar success. The school serves 25,000 students. There, 193 full time custodians clean more than 4 million square feet a a 24/7, three-shift system.

In the period between 1997 and 98, there were more than 15 reports of accidents. In the period between 1999 and 2000 there were less than five.

Like Sandia, UNM also is seeing an increase in customer satisfaction. In 1996 the cleaning officials sent out 600 surveys to study customer satisfaction. About half of the respondents gave the department an excellent rating. By 1999 more than 80 percent of the 600 respondents gave cleaning performance an excellent mark.

UNM uses the same team-cleaning approach as Sandia National Labs. Besides improving safety and quality, they reduced labor costs by more than 10 percent, saving the school more than $470,000 in three years.

Chemical costs also are down and equipment repairs are virtually nonexistent. In fact, the campus eliminated five different brands of vacuums and their associated repair costs when the school transitioned to the safer system. That change has resulted in near-zero down time for cleaning equipment.

So, what’s the most dangerous job in the world? It could be president of a contract cleaning company that doesn’t plan for employee safety. Such managers will most surely become extinct as BSCs realize they can make money while maintaining a safe workplace.

John Walker is a regular Contracting Profits columnist. He is a veteran building service contractor; owner of ManageMen consulting services, Salt Lake City; and founder of Janitor University, a hands-on cleaning management training program.