floor care

With all the ways a custodian can get injured on the job, training is an important part of keeping the workforce safe, especially as this group of workers gets older.  

“Wear and tear build up over the years,” says Dr. Milek. “We want people to come to work healthy and leave work healthy.” 

However, age and experience often butt up against the best-intentioned training program.  

“Lots of people have been in this business for years and they often get settled in bad habits,” says Jeff Dale, director, Building Services Department (Custodial & UW Recycling), University of Washington. “A program like ours can help turn those behaviors around.” 

For example, Dr. Milek and Dale point to another pain point when it comes to ergonomics: cleaning toilets The team observed workers holding the stall door open with their hips when scrubbing the fixture. The University installed powerful magnets to hold the door open, but custodians still threw their hips to the side when cleaning toilets.  

“It took a month, maybe longer, for the message to sink in. Change is slow,” says Dale. 

The type of training matters if managers want the message to sink in. For example, DeWeese believes classroom training is in one-ear-and-out-the-other. Instead, he prefers a short session on the general mechanics and then one-on-one or one-on-two sessions with the actual equipment. The general mechanics session often includes activities designed to illustrate important points. 

For instance, DeWeese counsels workers to change their stance when mopping — moving from narrowly placed, parallel feet to feet positioned at least shoulder-width apart with one in front of the other: also known as  the power stance. This position keeps the spine straighter and encourages the use of bigger, more efficient force generating muscles. 

To drive the message home, DeWeese has trainees stand face-to-face and try to push each other off balance in the different stances. 

“A lot more force is required to push them off the power stance,” he says. 

DeWeese also stresses the need to take care of the body while off the clock. That means maintaining a basic level of fitness, getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, and eating a good breakfast.  

“Think about it like being an endurance athlete,” he says. “Adopt the mindset of taking care of the body.” 

A Buffet of Tools 

There are ergonomic tools and equipment choices designed to ease pain, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution.  

“What works for a six-foot person may not be appropriate for a five-foot person,” says Schneringer. 

Some organizations offer workers a variety of tool options so workers can choose what works best for them. The University of Washington, for example, offers five or six different kinds of microfiber mops — ranging in weight, adjustable handles or swivel heads, and water retention.  

“No matter the choice, we observe how the tools are used and provide training where necessary,” says Dale. 

Floor machines that do much of the work also provide ergonomic benefits. After all, mopping 10,000 square feet every night would tax even the strongest body. However, there are ways to get hurt while using one of these machines, so training is still important. Along with knowing how to use the machine, make sure it meets standards around vibration and noise levels. 

There are safe machine options for every space and flooring material — autoscrubbers, spray-and-vacs, robotic scrubbers, and vacuums.  

“Orbital machines are really on the upswing,” reports Schneringer. “There’s a big learning curve with running a rotary floor machine — you have to get the balance right. Orbital machines stay in place, so they are easier to use right away.” 

Smaller floor equipment, like microscrubbers, can also come in handy, but there is a downside.  

“They only hold so much water, so you have to empty and refill more often, which can result in bending and/or lifting, depending on the setup in the facility,” says Schneringer. 

But not every ergonomic floor maintenance solution has to be an expensive machine. Take scraping up stuck-on stains. Traditionally one of the most grueling jobs, the task requires applying force from a squatting or kneeling position.  

“Scraping was an issue in the past but we have an adjustable tool so people can use it while standing up,” says Dr. Milek. 

DeWeese has seen an even more low-tech solution that works.  

“I’ve worked with people who duct taped a paint scraper to a broom handle,” he says. “Not every solution has to be a $3,000 machine.” 

Amy Milshtein is a freelancer based in Portland, Oregon. She is a frequent contributor to Contracting Profits

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How the Right Equipment Makes Tasks Safer