Protecting Cleaning Workers From Injury

Preparing staff for, and protecting them from, a hard day’s work

On average, the janitorial department typically accounts for 30 percent of the overall facility budget. Most experts and facility managers that I’ve worked with usually agree that of that 30 percent, the average custodial budget tends to be about 15 to 20 percent materials and supplies (chemicals, consumables and equipment), and 80 to 85 percent labor.

These numbers are captivating to me, because they represent a large disconnect between the producers of supplies and cleaning managers. This is evident by the fact that most of the major industry related discourse tends to center around new or upcoming technology. But perhaps we should start changing the conversation, and instead focus on protecting the larger piece of our custodial budget.

Some may be surprised to learn that custodial work has some of the highest incidence rates of injury-related days away from work in the United States. Additionally, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, overexertion-related injuries account for the highest percentage of reported injuries among janitors.

An overexertion injury can manifest itself in many ways, including swelling in the joints, pain, soreness, numbness and muscle weakness, and can lead to further injury down the road for custodial workers. It can also manifest itself either suddenly or cumulatively after a long shift of putting excessive strain on the body.

So what can we do as professionals to ensure that we’re providing the best and safest guidance to avoid these injuries? It’s important to check on the type of load our daily tasks and responsibilities are putting on our workforce. Check to make sure that cleaning workers aren’t putting too much strain on their backs and shoulders by lifting heavy materials such as full trash liners, bulk paper products and soiled laundry past their capacity. In fact, any repetitive motion that requires bending, pulling, pushing or reaching can accumulate over time and put a custodial worker at risk. Addressing these items and teaching the use of proper ergonomics can greatly reduce the risk.

I’ve seen various methods to reducing overexertion, but one of the most proactive approaches I’ve witnessed was at the University of Texas at Austin. Acknowledging the need to address the daily on-the-job strains of custodial work, the custodial management team partnered with the Kinesiology Department’s Fitness Institute of Texas. The group studied the custodial departments daily cleaning tasks and came up with a warm-up program for the staff that is used at the beginning of each shift. The goal is to reduce the risk of injury and to prepare the custodial department for the daily demands of cleaning work.

The basics of the program, named FIT Start, are available online, for those interested. In addition to the description of the program, the site provides a downloadable guide book and quick reference chart explaining the essentials for successful implementation.

This is a good, foundational start for facility cleaning managers looking to investigate ways to minimize overexertion of staff. While the thought of doing warm-up exercises before each shift may seem a bit out of place, it prepares the cleaning staff for the rigors of the day.