Overexertion tops the list of most frequent injuries to custodial workers, making it a reasonable place to focus initial safety efforts. This type of injury happens when someone attempts to perform a task that is beyond their physical capabilities — pulling heavy trash bags, for example, or lifting an overfilled mop bucket.

Improved ergonomic tools and training programs are common strategies for reducing injuries, but recent data suggests that balancing workloads can also reduce the risk of overexertion injuries.

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley looked at the impact of workloads on injuries for their study titled "Excessive Workload in the Janitorial Industry — an Emerging Health and Safety Concern." The researchers concluded that janitors have experienced a substantial increase in workload in recent years, with more than half of study participants reporting their workloads had doubled.

"Excessive workload is a work organization hazard that can result in sprains and other injuries, especially in an industry that involves high musculoskeletal loads as in the janitorial industry," says study authors Suzanne Teran and Evan vanDommelen-Gonzalez. "Excessive workload is also a key contributor to job stress."

In the quest to clean more space, more often, custodial workers become more susceptible to injury.

This happened at one of the nation's top defense laboratories. In the early 2000s, the custodial department averaged 44 lost days of work due to injuries, which totaled more than $2 million in defense claims — the entire custodial budget, plus labor. After they implemented a standardized cleaning system that focused on balancing the workloads of all custodial workers, the number of lost work days dropped from an average of 44 days to 8.

Ben Walker, COO of ManageMen, says unbalanced workloads happen when cleaning responsibilities are assigned by space rather than by specific tasks.

"There's a lot of confusion that exists when cleaning assignments are configured by assessing the cleanable square footage and dividing it by cleaning times," says Walker.  "A worker will take ownership of the area and perform a deep clean wall-to-wall every day. This isn't necessary in most buildings. Couple that with inefficient tools and an aging population, and you've got a real opportunity for people to injure themselves."

A simple step like warming up the body before work can also have a major impact on injury reduction. The University of Texas at Austin's Facility Services team, for example, worked with their kinesiology department to develop an award-winning warm-up program called FIT Start, which they've made available to help other custodial departments.

The goal of FIT Start is to prepare workers for the demands of the day and help reduce the risk of injury by getting blood to muscles and joints required for work.

In addition to helping reduce injury rates, the program has been met with enthusiasm among most custodial workers.

In a survey about the program, one employee responded, "I absolutely love it! It helps to get my blood flowing faster through my body to tell my body it's time to work. Very good program!"

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