It’s common for cleaning personnel to pull trash that weighs 25 pounds or more, twist and turn with each pass of a broom or mop, or apply force when scrubbing dirt off of a surface. And each of these tasks is repeated countless times in the course of a single shift. Unfortunately, some of the major causes of ergonomic injuries are forceful and highly repetitive motions, as well as asymmetric motion (twisting, bending and turning).

So how can you limit the health risks your employees take when their common tasks push the boundaries of safe ergonomics?

First, many cleaning tasks can be adjusted to involve motions that put employees at less risk. But, more importantly, educating workers regarding the benefits of proper posture or using tools appropriately can make the biggest difference because it will help them be more aware of the nuances involved in their daily activities.

Taking a closer look
To properly address worker ergonomics, housekeeping departments must create a multidisciplinary team of employees and managers to research what activities are most dangerous for employees. Then they must review various training and purchasing options to determine the best way to address these concerns.

Unfortunately, the cleaning industry doesn’t have collective ergonomics standards as many other fields do, so managers must address issues largely based on generic biomechanic and physiological information.

The bright side to this effort is that plenty of data are available that can be applied to the activities cleaners typically perform. And there is a chance that another area of your organization already has addressed ergonomics and may have a program in place that you can mimic, says Josh Kerst, CPE, CIE, vice president of Humantech Inc., an ergonomics consulting firm based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

For instance, if an administrative department recently reviewed the ergonomics involved in computer work stations, housekeeping could duplicate the same research, worker education and product review processes to determine which techniques and tools will be most efficient. And conferring with the people involved in that department’s ergonomics committee might help housekeeping avoid some common oversights new initiatives often encounter.

Gaining employee buy-in
Managers must work to educate workers regarding ergonomics adjustments and proper posture, so as to avoid the usual resistance to change most new implementations receive.

“Many people don’t fear change; they just don’t want to be there when it happens,” he jokes. Because employees often fear change, it is vital to explain why an ergonomics adjustment is necessary, explain the risks involved with doing a task incorrectly or not using the appropriate tool, and then explaining the benefits the worker will achieve doing something a new way.

Managers also need to follow up after they’ve trained workers to adjust their routines. And when employees protest or say a new method isn’t working, managers need to dig deeper to find out what the root reason is for the workers’ resistance.

“You need to ask why at least five times to get to the source of a problem,” he says. “Often, we’ve seen first attempts to adjust ergonomics miss the mark because they weren’t thought all the way through.”

He gives the example of a no-lift mop bucket that drains right into a floor drain of a janitor’s closet. The problem was workers had to drag and lift the bucket additional distances just to find a janitorial closet, adding more strain and time than traditional methods.

Managers also should explain how ergonomic injuries can happen when workers are at home as well as at work, says Kerst. While their actions at home don’t fall under a manager’s jurisdiction, their awkward or repetitive movements at home could compound muscle and bone stress encountered on the job.

Plus, giving employees a well-rounded explanation of how to care for their bodies proves that management is interested in protecting their health, not just trying to limit worker’s compensation costs.

Body mechanics
Since there are many motions in cleaning that can be a source of concern, managers should start analyzing one task that seems most likely to cause problems or that already has a history of related injuries in the department. Then, slowly expand efforts to other tasks, to ensure they cover all aspects of prevention.

For instance, lifting is a source of many back- and joint-related issues for cleaning personnel. The U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has done extensive lifting studies to determine the best conditions under which employees can lift objects, reducing the strain on their bodies. A formula to determine the proper height, weight and bending and repetitions to ensure maximum safety is available at the Washington State Dept. of Labor and Industries web site. Using this calculator, managers can determine weight limits for trash that cleaners must collect, possibly dictating the need for smaller receptacles to reduce loads.

One cleaning company noticed a build-up of suction when cleaners would pull full trash bags out of brute barrels. To reduce the stress on the workers, they drilled a small hole in the side of the barrels near the bottom. This allowed air to flow through the container and eliminate suction.

Another action that can increase injury risks is twisting out cloths or rags when cleaning. Kerst suggests workers wring out rags with their thumbs in a “thumbs-up” position, rather than facing down, to reduce joint stress.

When sweeping or mopping, workers should keep their elbows out and move in smaller figure eight patterns rather than sweeping side to side. This minimizes twisting and uneven pressure on the handle. And workers should face what they are doing directly, with shoulders should be above toes to align the spine, says professor William S. Marras, director of Ohio State University’s Biodynamics Laboratory.

“The spine is strongest when the vertebrae are stacked on top of one another,” he explains. “If you bend off center the vertebrae come apart and you don’t have has much support. Twisting can further isolate and put stress on them, increasing the risk factors.”

Many ergonomics experts also advise managers to rotate job duties among workers to help reduce the level of repetition in their tasks. Workers in zone- cleaning situations often have a variety of duties, but team cleaners still can shift between specialties at regular intervals as well.

Depending on the layout of the areas cleaners cover in a given shift, they might even be able to swap duties from floor to floor. If not, perhaps every other day, they could swap tasks.

Tool talk
While there are tools on the market that claim to increase ergonomic efficiency, experts warn managers to purchase carefully.

“Just because something is labeled ergonomic, painted yellow and is 15 percent more expensive doesn’t mean it’s the right tool for you,” warns Marras. Even if a tool truly is designed to reduce user stress, it may not be appropriate for every scenario and workers always can misuse it. For instance, if a duster is effective at waist height, it could be awkward to use for cleaning areas above someone’s head. Perhaps one with an extension-pole handle can address both situations with equal protection.

“This is why employees need to understand at least a little bit about ergonomics, so they can choose between the appropriate tools for different situations and know how to adjust their posture or grip to work most efficiently,” says Marras.