Preventing Injuries Among Cleaning Workers

Departments should take a sports medicine approach to their industrial athletes

Every year, I’m invited to participate in a site-wide all-hands meeting with one of my larger clients. The room is typically filled with the entire facility operation — custodians, managers, support staff, directors and vice president-level employees.

It’s a 5:00 a.m. meeting and the purpose is to present the importance of cleaning and how it impacts every department of the operation. At the most recent meeting, I was asked to give a presentation on the state of the cleaning profession, what I’m seeing in the field and asked to tell some fun anecdotes.

As I wrapped up my talk and walked to the back of the room, the next speaker took the podium and uttered a phrase I hadn’t heard before: “Everyone in this room performing the physical task of cleaning is an industrial athlete,” she said. Like a dog hearing a noise for the first time, I tipped my head and turned toward the front of the room.

“Industrial athletes,” she explained, “are those who makes a living using mental and physical talents to perform jobs that require strength, mobility, endurance and some physical skill. Cleaning workers use their musculoskeletal system to perform their sport or job.”

As somewhat of a fitness and nutrition junkie, I find this concept fascinating and have spent the better part of the past couple of months reading up on industrial athletics. From what I’ve been able to find, the concept gained traction back in the mid-1980s. A sports medicine physician named Dr. Warren Schildberg began studying the similarities between the repetitive motion injuries common in physical labor and overuse injuries common in athletes.

While the similarities in injury types may seem pretty obvious, Dr. Schildberg and a colleague took notice of how differently each were treated. Instead of treating overuse injuries reactively, they began suggesting preventative sports medicine methods for professions requiring physical activity.

Professional athletes have to properly train, nourish, rest and prepare themselves to stay competitive in their sport. Even when athletes are diligent in their preparations, they still are prone to a full spectrum of injuries — serious or nagging.

Training and performing at an elite level is hard on the body. It’s why athletes have trainers, nutritionists, coaches and a number of other support staff to keep their bodies performing. The reasons for this almost go without saying, but there’s one that sometimes stays hidden: risk. There is an inherent risk in their profession. Cleaning work is no different.

Cleaning workers have a lot in common with professional athletes. While the work they do may not receive the large contracts, professional endorsements, the adoration of millions of fans or the chance to play a sport on live television every Sunday, cleaners put a lot of strain on their bodies.

Anyone who has spent any time on a cleaning shift knows that, without question, the work is physical and difficult. Overuse injuries are among the common traumas in daily custodial work. The result is musculoskeletal suffering in the form of sprains, strains and tears. These are injuries that, if not properly tended to and cared for, can be career ending.

Now if we can just start working on a commercial break during timeouts. 
Ben Walker is the Director of Business Development for ManageMen, Inc., a leading cleaning industry consultancy specializing in training, transitions, auditing and educational materials. In addition to his consulting work, Walker is the author of ISSA’s best selling book: 612 Cleaning Times and Tasks.