Remember working on penmanship exercises in school as a youngster?

Most people seem to never forget how gripping a No. 2 pencil and writing the same letter of the alphabet over and over again caused hand cramping. But after a few seconds and a little shaking it out, the cramping subsided and back to work it was — dotting i’s and crossing t’s.

Although penmanship drills aren’t considered a physically demanding task later in life, they mark one of the first times in our lives where we experienced pain due to repetitive movement while maintaining the same grip for an extended amount of time.

Aches and pains associated with repetitive movement are common to custodians. Unlike elementary school students, hand cramps are the least of their worries — it’s other injuries that can cause injuries and lead to long-term disability and even lawsuits.

The job duties of employees in the cleaning field place stress on many custodians’ bodies, especially when brooms, brushes and mops enter the equation. These instruments require physical labor and constant movement for hours on end which is extremely demanding on the human body.

Josh Kerst, vice president and ergonomics engineer at Humantech Inc., Ann Arbor, Mich., says custodians face back and arm discomfort from bending and reaching each work shift.

“We definitely see primary stressors on the hands, wrists and elbows, and we see a lot of back issues associated with the bending,” Kerst says. “There’s a lot of activity that goes on with bending, reaching and twisting.”

That’s where manufacturers of brooms, brushes and mops are called upon for relief. Taking end users’ needs into consideration, ergonomic and lightweight instruments are beginning to reduce fatigue rates and injuries, which, in turn, reduces lost work time and workman compensation claims.

Injured On The Job
With increased public demand for cleaner facilities, Kerst says the pressure is on custodians and BSCs to step up their game. “It puts a lot of pressure on the custodial staff to try to clean the building better, while at the same time, their workforce is getting leaner,” he notes. “They’re being asked to do more with less. That’s where the complementary aspect of ergonomics comes in. It will really help them do more with less.”

Working employees past their breaking point is not good practice. “People can’t be driven beyond their capabilities,” Kerst explains. “They fight through the pain until they can’t and the result is poor performance and a bad-quality job, that can result in injuries and costs.”

Mark Hoyle, senior product manager for microfiber flat mops and safety for Rubbermaid Commercial Products, Winchester, Va., says one of the worst aspects of these injuries is that most of the time, injuries don’t become noticeable during actual mopping.

“You’re going to get into a rhythm while mopping and when you go to empty the mop bucket — bam — your back goes out,” Hoyle explains. “You weaken and fatigue the back during mopping and then you go and put stress on it by lifting the mop bucket to pour the water out. That’s where you get hurt.”

Hoyle says that in-house cleaning managers and building service contractors (BSCs) should address injuries up-front to prevent loss of worker time due to injury.

“It’s a relative downward spiral that you run into,” Hoyle explains. “It’s not just the fact that these workers are getting injured, it’s the lost time that has the largest effect.”

In-house cleaning managers and BSCs have a finite number of people working, so if one person gets injured while working, other employees have to “pick up the slack.”

This can lead to an increased likelihood that one of those employees gets injured as well. “It really gets to be a compounding problem if you don’t address it up-front,” Hoyle notes.

New Developments
Christopher Olenski, senior product manager for brooms and brushes at Rubbermaid Commercial Products, says brooms, brushes and mops are tools of great concern as far as injuries go.

“They are a concern because they are such a core to the industry and they are a high-use item,” he explains. “You can be assigned a task and be using them for hours.”

New innovations such as bent handles, grips and lower weighted materials have been implemented within broom and mop design in order to prevent end user injuries. “As far as the hardware, in the past it was more about how sturdy you could build something,” he explains. “Now we’re looking at aluminums and vinyl-coated metals to reduce the weight of the hardware, the handle and the frame, to make it more ergonomic,” says Steve Lewis, vice president of sales at Golden Star Inc., North Kansas City, Mo.

Hoyle says Rubbermaid goes a little further by looking at the diameters of the handles on their brooms, brushes and mops.

“We look at matching hand shape and hand size,” he explains. “In our microfiber line we have some ergonomic bends that are built into the handles to accommodate the mopping style used with flat mopping. It’s more of a comfortable grip, more of a natural piece for the hand.”

Lewis says telescopic mop handles are starting to hit the market. “They can be custom fitted for each user,” he explains. “If you have a short person, these handles address the problem of a stick that is too long for them to use comfortably.”

Lighter=Less Fatigue
Tim Hodges, president of sales, O’Dell Corp., Ware Shoals, S.C., says flat mops and microfiber mops are lightweight products that are easier to use, and have less of a fatigue factor.

“A typical wet mop will absorb about five times it’s dry weight,” Hodges explains. “Some microfibers will absorb four to five times their dry weight but it’s a much smaller and lighter tool. You’re able to move it around in tighter areas and smaller areas. It’s just not as heavy and you’re not straining yourself going back and forth.”

John Lewis, president of Tucel Industries Inc., Forestdale, Vt., agrees. His company focuses on making handles lightweight so the tool is easier for the end user to maneuver. “We’ve taken the weight out of all of our products,” he explains. “We don’t use woods or metals anymore.”

Hodges also says it’s a huge advantage for facilities to establish a flat mopping system. “From an ergonomic standpoint, when you think about workman’s compensation claims and things of that nature, it’s a huge advantage to have a lighter tool to work with,” he says.

Hodges predicts that improvements to flat mopping tools and procedures are probably the biggest change coming down the pike. He says this will affect people advantageously from an ergonomic perspective.

In addition to developing lighter handles and mop heads, manufacturers are also making advancements in lightweight yarns. This has made mopping less stressful for the end user, especially when it comes to wet mopping, says John Lindstrom, president of Zephyr Mfg., Co., Inc., Sedalia, Mo.

“Particularly in the wet mopping products, today’s yarns are far better than even five or 10 years ago and their quality level makes them easier to mop with,” he says. “They generally generate less friction, release the water in a more controlled manner and make the task of wet mopping less fatiguing.”

Rubbermaid Commercial Products stresses the importance of a less fatiguing product, in fact, it is the company’s main objective while designing products. Hoyle says that Rubbermaid emphasizes that the mop be friendly to the user, and also that the ancillary equipment — such as carts and buckets — helps achieve a more ergonomic product as well.

“As you move past the mops and into the equipment that goes with it, that really shows the importance of a system,” Hoyle explains. “You don’t just want the mops to be ergonomic. You need the whole system to focus on the user’s comfort.”"

Change For The Good?
With ergonomic design beginning to take hold in the jan/san industry, some manufacturers say these modifications to design may be detrimental — or perceived as detrimental — to the end product.

Kerst notes that sales of ergonomic products haven’t taken off like manufacturers had hoped. The main problem is they are not being implemented into daily cleaning because in many instances, end users are not seeing great advantages in switching to these products. “The on-going engagement has been sort of two steps forward, two steps back,” Kerst notes.

“An issue like this always butts heads against the effectiveness of the product,” Lindstrom explains. “There’s all kinds of things you might theoretically be able to do to a mop or broom or brush to make it less fatiguing, but when you get done with it you have a product that is less effective. It’s a great idea on some of the products but with others it doesn’t work.”

Many end users continue to mop floors with a conventional cotton-blend mop with a straight handle composed of wood, says Jay Ritter, vice president of Carolina Mop Co., Anderson, S.C.

“People talk about the ergonomics of handles, but 99 percent of the handles are still your straight handle,” he says. “A lot of these mop heads and sticks have been the same for a long time.”

Even though many end users still rely on the typical straight wood bar handle, Steve Lewis says manufacturers will continue to produce lightweight products that will show measurable money and labor savings.

Carolina Mop focuses its testing on the quality of the tool because the company feels that worker fatigue is not a highly tested area in general.

“It’s more of the quality of the products,” Ritter explains. “Is it going to perform? Is it going to hold up?”

O’Dell carries out extensive product testing and duplicates workplace conditions to help foresee potential problem areas before the product goes to market.

“We do product testing in-house and we try to duplicate workplace conditions with regard to the type of floor, the type of chemical, and the type of laundry process that a product may be exposed to,” Hodges explains. “We’ll do that for a trial period usually upwards of 90 to 100 days. That way we can get the cycle down that is most often expected in a workplace.”

Right Tool
Armed with the right tool — be it a traditional or new ergonomic design — end users can reduce the chance of injury and improve the job they do.

Rory Beaudette, national sales and marketing manager, ACS Industries Inc., Woonsocket, R.I., says it is crucial that the end user is provided with the right size tool. “You don’t want to give them something too big for them or something too small for them,” he explains.

Golden Star’s Steve Lewis says small or medium size mops are typically best for females, while larger sizes are generally appropriate for a male.

The right size instrument is determined on an individual basis, but employees need to be taught about how to perform certain procedures. “It’s just like knowing to bend at your knees instead of bending at your back when you’re lifting a box,” Hoyle says. “That type of thinking applies to mopping or while using any equipment.”

Steve Lewis says that no matter how “advanced” ergonomic design becomes, the key to reducing worker fatigue is reducing resistance at the point where the tool makes contact with the floor.

“The main point you need to pay attention to is the drag and the friction on the floor. Other than the act of picking up a wet mop, putting it into a bucket and wringing it out, that’s really your most fatiguing factor.”

Steve Lewis says that end users need to look for products that minimize the amount of drag but can still perform. He recommends finish mops that are made of 100 percent nylon because they have a reduced amount of drag.

Whether you’re a proponent of ergonomic design or not, it all comes down to the end user’s preference. In the long run, many manufacturers feel that in-house cleaning managers and BSCs can greatly benefit from ergonomic tools and lightweight tools — as long as they are used correctly.

Training Distributors
Training distributors how to use brooms, brushes and mops — and having them pass the information on — is one way to reduce end user injuries.

“Manufacturers must train jan/san distributors on the proper use of our products,” says Rory Beaudette, national sales and marketing manager, ACS Industries Inc., Woonsocket, R.I. “The distributor can then provide end user training through sales meetings, workshops, and on-site demonstrations.”

Rubbermaid Commercial Products, Winchester, Va., makes it a priority to offer training classes for distributors whether it’s through online courses, salesman visits, or having customers visit their training facility in Huntersville, N.C.

Mayo Jones, senior product manager for retail cleaning and mops at Rubbermaid Commercial Products says the company offers a one-day course in “mopology,” a training course where distributors are trained on how to select the right mop for the job and also how to match the right sized mop to the end user.

“We also take them through proper mopping techniques,” Jones notes. “A lot of people think of it as something simple and easy but if you don’t mop properly, you could wind up hurting yourself.”

Mark Hoyle, senior product manager for microfiber flat mops and safety, says Rubbermaid Commercial Products reaches out to its customers and trains them on the correct way to clean and use the tools.

“The whole focus is on proper use of the tools and trying to have the proper processes in place so that as you clean, you’re cleaning in the most efficient and safest manner possible,” Hoyle explains.

Steve Lewis, vice president of sales at Golden Star Inc., North Kansas City, Mo., says his company trains distributors on matching tools with

end users. “It’s very important to know the end users because mops are made in different sizes based on the user,” Lewis explains.

Matching the right tool to a certain application is Zephyr Mfg. Co., Inc.’s main focus, says president John Lindstrom.

“We, as a manufacturer, tend to train our distributors on how to choose the right material for specific applications, not necessarily on how to operate the equipment,” he explains. “Operating the equipment, whether it be a broom or a power sweeper, it could be very different from one end user to the next. We stress our activities on helping people be educated about choosing the right wet mop, or the right dry mop or the right brush fiber for the application because that makes a difference.”

In On The Act
Humantech Inc., an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based workplace ergonomics consulting firm, is also training end users in the jan/san industry says Josh Kerst, vice president and ergonomics engineer. Kerst says Humantech offers courses to end users that teach the basic elements of risk factor identification.

“People don’t know what they don’t know,” he says. “They may be doing a task and not know what the long-term risk might be to their body and to their productivity.”

Kerst says Humantech provides customers with assessment tools that allow them to critically evaluate the work that’s being done. The firm also teaches end users how to look for proper ergonomic products.

“When someone says a product is ergonomic, it’s usually a red flag for me,” Kerst says. “Our field really needs to ensure that when a product says it’s ergonomic, it really meets the criteria. We teach end users to know the details behind the measurements and what the features and functions should look like.”

— N.B.