OSHA’s new ergonomics regulations may be good for the industry

/DECK--> New ergonomic regulations recently issued by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administra-tion (OSHA) seem to have everyone in the cleaning industry up in arms. Everyone except me. I think it’s a good idea. In fact, I think it’s a great idea that’s long overdue.

The current clamor reminds me a little of the hoopla over hazard communication (hazcom) some years ago. Just the other day I was looking at a trade article from 1986, warning of the impending disasters OSHA’s new hazcom regulations were sure to bring. The writer warned readers to hire attorneys, up their liability insurance and prepare to spend a boatload of money once the regulations went into effect. In retrospect, hazcom has been good for the industry.

I believe we’ll gain similar benefits from the new ergonomic standards. They will not only protect cleaning workers but the companies they work for and the cleaning industry as a whole. Perhaps a little historical perspective will help calm your nerves.

History repeats itself
Ergonomics is not new. In the late 1800s Frederick Winslow Taylor conducted a landmark study on improving productivity in the steel industry. Using Bethlehem Steel as his laboratory, Taylor tested two of the company’s best coal shovelers to determine how much material they were able to move. With stopwatches and notebooks, Taylor measured the weight of each scoop, how many loads were moved and how long it took to do it. He determined the men moved about 20 tons of coal per day with scoops that weighed 38 pounds each.

Then Taylor adjusted the shovels to hold only about 34 pounds. A surprising thing happened. Each workers productivity went up from 20 tons per day to 30 tons. Taylor again cut the shovels, reducing the scoop load to 30 pounds. Once again, the men were able to actually shovel more coal than before. By reducing the shovel load and tracking the results, Taylor and his men were able to average shoveling 60 tons of coal per day with a 21.5-pound shovel scoop.

This pioneer of ergonomics later testified before Congress:

"When we went to the Bethlehem Steel Co. we found from 400 to 600 men at work in that yard, and when we got through 140 men were doing the work of the 400 to 600, and these men handled several million tons of material a year; the cost of handling a ton was brought down from between 7 and 8 cents to between 3 and 4 cents and the actual saving (to the company) was at the rate of $78,000 a year."

There were other benefits as well. All those men who used to shovel coal were moved inside the plant to help keep up with increased capacity. And the coal shovelers themselves made an average of 60 percent more than their peers who worked for competitors. Perhaps best of all, the increased productivity resulted in less fatigue for the workers. This pioneering productivity study, which resulted in what was known as "scientific shoveling," may also be used as an early study in ergonomics.

That was 100 years ago, but ergo-nomic improvements in this century can bring equally positive changes. OSHA predicts the new regulations will cost businesses about $4 billion to implement. But the same changes will result in a savings of more than $9 billion in medical expenses and workers’ compensation.

At this writing, ManageMen is in the process of completing an ergonomic study of mopping. We’re looking to see what are the actual numbers versus the myths. Why the interest? Employers must understand they will pay a price for procedures that slow work and injure the cleaning worker. Whether it’s mopping or any other cleaning procedure, cleaning contractors need to find the most ergonomically correct way to accomplish a task. Inevitably, that process also will be the safest and most productive.

Here are my three levels of cost-effective changes you can implement right now to experience immediate increases in productivity while improving workplace ergonomics.

Ergonomic restroom cleaning program
An inexpensive change you can make is to institute an ergonomic restroom cleaning program. For approximately $350 (the cost of purchasing the following items), you can change the way you clean restrooms:

Switch to flat mops. Flat mopping reduces the weight of mops by 50 percent to 60 percent, and decreases the amount of bending and stooping required. With flat mops, workers can clean walls, stalls and floors with one lightweight tool.

Squeegees with telescoping handles reduce the amount of reaching and stretching required for cleaning mirrors and walls. Dusters can also benefit from this kind of handle. Provide a long handle on a utility scraper and employees won’t have to bend or be on their knees to remove gum or other material stuck to the floor.

Microfiber cloths further reduce the amount of exertion workers need to wash counters, mirrors and fixtures.

Also, consider changing your cleaning chemicals. Point-of-use, multi-purpose chemicals are easier on cleaning workers and simplify chemical management. Cleaners are not required to lift heavy solution containers. Also, they avoid unnecessary trips back and forth between the service closet and the work site. All of the chemicals they need for an entire shift are carried with them on the cart. Cleaning is faster because the same color-coded chemical can be used for the entire cleaning task.

These changes can provide a dramatic reduction in the amount of physical exertion required for restroom cleaning while actually improving cleaning quality. If productivity improved by 5 percent to 10 percent, this program would pay for itself in less than three months. That doesn’t include savings you may see from reduced injuries.

Ergonomic vacuuming and dust removal
According to a 1998 study by Ohio State University and Batelle Memorial Institute, backpack vacuums require less than half the energy to clean the same sized area as an upright. The study also found backpack vacuums avoid the repetitive motions that can result in medical disabilities.

The report says backpack vacuums result in less body stress and increased efficiency. They allow more carpet cleaning in a shorter amount of time due to the natural walking motion. Most cleaning organizations using team cleaning with a backpack vacuum schedule can count on a vacuum specialist to clean an average of 10,000 to 12,000 square feet per hour; single motor upright vacuums generally are scheduled for much smaller square footage.

Also, the superior filtration systems in some of these vacuums result in decreased dusting. Anecdotal reports even say there is a decline in complaints from asthma sufferers and people with other breathing problems.

While the cost of a backpack may be up to $500, the machine will easily pay for itself in less than three months when you account for time and wage savings.

Ergonomic autoscrubbing
Wherever possible, replace your walk-behind autoscrubber with one employees can ride. Ride speed on an auto scrubber is 20 percent to 40 percent faster than walk speed. And a riding scrubber operator experiences zero fatigue when scrubbing the floors.

Riding autoscrubbers may run between $10,000 to $15,000. The money you save on increased efficiency, reduced downtime and problems should pay for the new autoscrubber in 12 to 24 months. That doesn’t even factor in the additional benefits from the improved professionalism of the operator.

The sky’s the limit
Budget constraints shouldn’t prevent you from realizing the benefits of ergonomic tools and techniques.

Remember that study of shoveling? Frederick W. Taylor said, "It may seem to you a matter of very little consequence, but I want you to see, if I can, that this new mental attitude is the very essence of scientific management; that the mechanism is nothing if you have not got the right sentiment, the right attitude in the minds of men, both on the management’s side and on the workman’s side."

The sky is not falling. In fact, the sky is the limit when cleaning managers and workers team up to make ergonomics work for everyone.

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.