New and innovative products enter the marketplace every day and mopping systems are no exception. One of the most recent trends in mopping is the push towards safer and more ergonomic products. These new-and-improved mopping systems are often substantially lighter than traditional products and they’re more ergonomically designed than ever. They’ve earned high praise — and, surprisingly, also cause a bit of trepidation. Could something this easy, workers wonder, be too good to be true?

“Some of my people still want the standard, 60-inch, screw-top wooden mop handles, and they’ll use them until the paint is worn off,” says Gary Brezinski, director of buildings and grounds for the West Ottawa Public Schools in Holland, Mich. “We have to go on raids periodically and replace them with updated products.”

Some managers might wonder why there is so much resistance to using the newer, ergonomically designed handles.

Brezinski, who began transitioning his workforce to the new mopping systems more than a year ago, can think of two reasons: the learning curve that typically accompanies any kind of change, and the fact that some of his workers aren’t comfortable letting the mop — not their backs — do the work.

“There’s a feeling of ‘the floor can’t be clean because I didn’t put enough muscle into it,’” he explains.

An Ounce of Prevention
Still, Brezinski and other cleaning professionals continue to encourage workers to switch to newer, ergonomically-designed tools whenever possible. They point out that the advanced technology cleans as well, if not better, than the older equipment.

More important, though, managers know that tools and equipment designed to maximize human comfort, as well as productivity, simply make certain jobs safer to perform. That’s because tools which reduce the amount of “muscle” needed for a job, in turn decrease the likelihood of injury — particularly the variety of back injuries that are often associated with tasks such as mopping a floor.

In fact, back strain is the cleaning industry’s most reported injury, according to statistics kept by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). It’s a widespread injury north of the border, as well.

“Overexertion, sprain and strain injuries are so common …they are thought to be just part of the job,” according to a 2006 report issued by Canada’s British Columbia School Safety Association.

Regardless of the type, size or age of a tool, training workers to use it correctly is a vital component of on-the-job safety. Caring for floors is a large part of many cleaning programs, and mopping a floor incorrectly — making mistakes when lifting, reaching and turning — puts workers at a higher risk of injury.

An employee who bends at the same time he or she lifts an object, such as bucket, for example, is automatically at risk for a back injury. Heavier objects pose an even greater risk of injury. But some danger exists whenever a worker incorrectly uses a mop, whether a traditional string mop or a newer microfiber flat mop.

“Bending while lifting places strain on the back, even when lifting something as light as a screwdriver,” reports an OSHA training publication.

Training employees on these dangers is essential. Every cleaning professional knows that injured workers are unproductive workers.

“You lose a lot of time when you have employees out on Worker’s Comp,” says Sandra Harshman, materials controller at the McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

In an effort to keep workers safe, housekeeping supervisors have long trained workers on job safety, paying special attention to helping employees avoid injuries when a task requires flexibility or force. Mopping requires varying degrees of both.

“We train from the beginning,” notes Brezinski, “because safety is also learning how to stretch and [warm up] even before you mop.”

Other effective training typically includes teaching workers to keep elbows close to the body when lifting buckets and moving mops, or to alternate hands at the top of the mop. Stress that workers should bend at the knees, walk with the mop, avoid over-reaching and mop in a “neutral-spine” position.

Proper training, though, is only part of the equation. Better equipment, especially tools that make it easier and faster for workers to perform tasks, can play a key role in enhancing on-the-job safety.

The Ergonomics of Safety
Enter ergonomics, which is the science of designing a product to work in harmony with safe body movements. Many scrub and wire brushes, for example, have been ergonomically redesigned over the years for a more comfortable grip and easier use. The handles are longer, wider, contoured to the palms or fingers, slightly bent instead of straight, or any combination of such changes. They often feature a softer rubber over-molding for even more comfort. All of these improvements work to distribute pressure more evenly.

Over the past few years, ergonomic improvements have also been made to both traditional string and microfiber flat-mopping systems. Cleaning departments and agencies all over the country are increasingly adopting new ergonomic technologies and report, overall, very positive results.

“We’ve had a lot of success with mop trolleys that are designed more ergonomically for transport,” says Roger Vance, custodial coordinator for the Del Norte Unified School in Crescent City, Cal. “They have a platform and a higher mop-wringing handle, and they reduce the need for bending, torquing and twisting of the torso in order to maneuver.”

Vance also points out that the trolleys offer additional next-generation safety upgrades that are not strictly ergonomic but that nevertheless reduce the risk of a variety of injuries.

“The trolley is safer in reducing fatigue, because it’s lighter and smaller, so it’s easier to maneuver,” he notes. “When you reduce overall fatigue the benefits extend to other areas of the work day.”

At least one major manufacturer recently stopped making its best-selling bucket-and-wringer combination altogether, instead replacing it with an ergonomically enhanced version. The wringer handle on the new product is longer, requiring less bending on the part of the worker, and features an ergonomic bend that puts it at a more natural angle to the wrist. The system’s bucket-within-a-bucket feature reduces splashing and divides the lift-load of water needed for mopping.

“We like it because it also separates the water so you’re not mopping with dirty water,” says Harshman.

Less splashing is not an ergonomic safety feature, but it helps create a much safer environment for both the workers and anyone else in or around the mopping area. Reducing the amount of water on a floor reduces the chances of a slip-and-fall accident. It also shortens the time it takes employees to clean up after splashes.

Cleaning professionals who have switched to the new wave-less, bucket-and-wringer system also praise the downward-press wringer as a superior ergonomic innovation.

“It’s much more user-friendly,” says Vance, “because it gives you more control and it pushes down on the mop so the bucket stays stationary. With a sidepress wringer, force is applied laterally, so you have to hold the bucket and the assembly a little firmer in order to wring the mop.”

When the job requires little or no liquid, microfiber flat-mopping systems offer a multitude of ergonomic safety features. Mop handles made of aluminum and not wood, for instance, are lighter and can be made with extensions or solution containers built in. Many users say these handles practically eliminate the need for workers to stoop while preparing or mopping a floor. Also, the poles themselves can be ergonomically shaped with bends built in that result in a much more effective distribution of pressure. This, in turn, reduces the amount of force needed to mop a floor or apply a finish.

The parade of safety and ergonomic improvements will no doubt continue to attract converts. Managers who have made the switch say they’ve seen increased productivity and reduced down-time. And workers say their muscles and backs appreciate the break.

Mary Erpenbach is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis.