custodial workers at University of Washington cleaning campus sign

Much of a custodian’s day is spent on their feet performing cleaning tasks that require bending, stooping, reaching, pushing, carrying, lifting, grabbing and handling a variety of heavy items. Trends in the industry have also increased expectations for productivity, sometimes resulting in physical strain to accomplish a lot within a small amount of time.

It’s no wonder that workers in the cleaning industry have one of the highest injury rates compared to other occupational groups, according to ManageMen, a provider of custodial safety and training systems. But injuries should not be a given just because custodial work is physical.

Whenever my department considers purchasing equipment or products, we first consider how safe and easy is it is to use. Our established green cleaning polices guide us to use only the safest, certified products to protect our staff and campus community. Our staff also receives ongoing safety training and attends monthly safety meetings. Additionally, we furnish all appropriate protective equipment for custodians.

Despite these efforts, custodians continue to experience injuries. We set out to put a stop to it.

In the same way my department uses green cleaning products to protect skin, eyes and internal organs from toxic substances, we now also utilize the science of ergonomics to find new ways to protect our staff from musculoskeletal disorders caused by repetitive strain injuries.

Collaborating On Solutions

In 2015, the University of Washington (UW) Building Services Department (BSD) was presented with an opportunity to form the Participatory Ergonomics Program team by collaborating with the UW Environmental Health & Safety Department (EH&S) to focus on reducing custodian discomfort. We applied for the Safety & Health Investment Project (SHIP) grant sponsored by Washington State Department of Labor & Industries in 2015, and we were fortunate to be awarded grant funding in 2016. Members of the team include cleaning and safety professionals lead by an occupational health physician.

Together, we began with three key points: discomfort is a predictor of future injury; custodians know their work better than anyone else; and prevention and/or reduction in injuries is possible.

Next, the team identified 16 routine cleaning tasks and developed a pictorial survey for BSD custodians. The survey depicted each task, its natural sequence and asked custodians to indicate if they experience discomfort either while performing or following each task. They were also asked to indicate where on their body they felt discomfort and rate the level of pain within a range of 1 (little discomfort) to 5 (extreme discomfort).

Over 160 survey responses determined the top four problem tasks our ergonomics team would ultimately research. These included backpack vacuuming, cleaning toilets, bending to pick up debris and scraping floors.

Our team of experts then divided into small groups with custodian volunteers to create task modifications. With their permission, custodians were filmed performing each task to help the teams identify issues. The following summaries detail the four problem tasks.
Backpack Vacuuming: Due to leadership’s underestimation of the amount of training needed to use vacuums correctly, custodians ended up not knowing how to safely wear the backpacks or make good use of the harnesses.

Solution: Extensive, hands-on training was provided so each custodian had a backpack vacuum with a customized fit. Also, we discovered that no one learns only by watching. Thus, each custodian was asked to demonstrate their ability to put on the backpack and adjust their harness.

Cleaning Toilets: The average toilet brush handle is a foot long. This means tall staff members are forced to bend over to clean toilet bowls effectively.

Solution (pending): We found a handle measuring two feet long as an initial solution. However, since the handle is very wide, it created new problems for petite custodians. We’re currently providing brushes in both lengths, but are still searching for toilet bowl brushes/swabs that are either adjustable or available in various lengths.

During the observation of this task, we made an unexpected discovery: Nearly all custodians leaned their hips sideways to prop open stall doors while they cleaned. This stance compounded the discomfort of bending and reaching to clean the bowl.

Solution: Heavy-duty magnets are now located on all stall partitions to keep doors from getting in the way during cleaning service. While this simple solution works, it was initially very difficult for custodians to break the habit of trying to use their hips.

Picking Up Trash: A great amount of strain was experienced when custodians had to bend over chairs and desks to pick up debris, especially in lecture halls and auditoriums with narrow seating arrangements.

Solution: We now offer five types of grabber wands to fit a variety of heights and hand sizes.  

Scraping Floors: This task was notoriously painful for backs, as it required people to couch down and bend over in order to scrape grime from floors with a standard putty knife.

Solution: To reduce back discomfort immediately, we augmented the putty knife by attaching a long handle so it can be used while standing up.

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Ergonomic Improvements That Reduce Worker Injuries