Maintaining hard floors isn’t as time consuming and labor intensive as it once was, thanks to automated floor-care equipment. These machines — designed to make floor stripping, cleaning, buffing and burnishing more efficient — can save time and money if used correctly. Cleaning managers should employ the appropriate safety precautions to prevent costly on-the-job accidents and injuries.

“You can never try to enhance productivity through compromising safety,” says Dennis Oehl, assistant hospital administrator for support services at Nassau University Medical Center, East Meadow, N.Y. “One injury claim puts all the financial savings you’ve generated by emphasizing productivity down the drain.”

Training comes first
As with the addition of any new equipment or worker, training is essential to ensure a safe work environment.

Proper training for automated floor-care equipment like autoscrubbers and high-speed burnishers, involves several steps.

First, managers should screen employees’ skills and choose a specific team of workers to use the machines.

“Not every employee should be allowed to use every piece of equipment, especially ride-on scrubbers and floor-care machines,” says Oehl. “We limit the number of employees that use this equipment so we can ensure that they have the skills to operate them safely.”

Employees assigned to automated equipment operation should read and understand manufacturers’ written training materials and operator manuals, which provide basic information about the machines’ functions, operation, safety features, and care and maintenance.

Employees at the University of Iowa Hospitals must pass a written test before they are allowed to operate floor-care equipment, says Mary Thompson, departmental trainer.

Hands-on training makes up the other half of equipment orientation.

“Our first hands-on training with ride-on scrubbers is no different than teaching a teenager how to drive — employees are nervous and make mistakes,” Oehl says.

“We take them into wide-open spaces where they can practice and get confidence in the machines.”

During hands-on training, managers and supervisors should demonstrate proper cleaning techniques, which can prevent workers from accidentally damaging the facilities and equipment. For example, employees should be careful of walls and doorways, says Wayne Milder, facilities mechanic at University of Iowa Hospitals.

“We train workers not to get too close to walls and doors to prevent damaging them or the machine itself,” he says. “We’ll come back with a smaller machine to get areas close to the walls and doors clean.”

Milder says employees might go through re-training, if necessary. “Supervisors are on the lookout for safety hazards or mistakes,” he says.

Mentoring programs ensure ongoing safety
Peer coaching and mentoring is an effective training approach. Partnering workers new to operating floor-care machines with experienced workers is one way to ensure thorough training.

“Other employees can coach [new users] as they go, make sure they are following safety procedures, and remind them that their work influences everyone else around them,” Oehl says. “Also, when a worker makes a mistake, he or she is more likely to go to another worker than to a supervisor.”

Thompson agrees. “There needs to be someone available to contact so employees can have their safety questions answered and not have to figure it out on their own,” she says. “They are encouraged to ask questions so they can be sure they are using the equipment safely.”

Designs with safety in mind
Newer floor-cleaning technology feature designs to enhance safety. Some machines have safety interlock switches or combination switches: buttons that must be pressed to activate the levers that start the machine — preventing the machine from being turned on accidentally.

Also, spring-loaded, twist-grip switches are designed to shut running machines off if the user gets off the seat during operation. Some machines also have a second trigger switch to prevent the machine from accidentally going into reverse.
“Many older machines didn’t have so many safety switches, so anyone could potentially walk by a machine, turn it on, and get hurt,” says Milder.

Safety is also enhanced by ergonomic features.

“Many of the machines have adjustable height controls so that you can adjust the height of the handle based on the operator’s height — making it easier to operate and less likely to create an injury,” says Thompson.

Newer machines are also safer because they are virtually fully automated. Milder points out that some riding machines have predetermined set speeds programmed for cleaning operations.

“That way, the machine will only go the correct speed and not faster, depending on which application you choose,” he says.

Marketplace demands safe equipment
Cleaning managers are on the lookout for as many safety features as they can get and pay close attention to the extent that manufacturers emphasize safety in products.

“I would say that most vendors put an emphasis on safety, but there can always be more,” Oehl says.

“For example, autoscrubbers have lights and horns, but most ride-on burnishers don’t. But burnishers actually go faster than autoscrubbers, so they should. Manufacturers could always do more to improve safety.”

Lynne Knobloch-Fedders is a free-lance writer based in Vernon Hills, Illinois.