You can spend the time and effort in injury-prevention or you can spend money on workers compensation payouts and hiring/training replacement technicians. Choose wisely.
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All work has risks and discomforts but few match the physical demands encountered by workers performing cleaning and custodial tasks. Taking steps to address these risks will have a positive effect for both your company and your staff. In addition to lowering workers’ compensation costs, reducing ergonomic risks in the workplace can reduce absenteeism, employee turnover and health care costs, while increasing job satisfaction and employee efficiencies.
Watch Out for these Common Injuries
The injuries tied to cleaning generally arise from multiple causes over time rather than from one acute injury. Grouped as Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders (WMSD), these conditions include
– Muscle strains
– Rotator cuff syndrome
– Epicondylitis (aka, tennis elbow)
– Overuse syndrome
– And others
The areas of the body most commonly affected from cleaning tasks are the back, shoulders, neck, arms, wrist/hands/fingers, knees, ankles and elbows.
The Root Causes of Most Cleaning-related Injuries
The ergonomic risk factors – or the motions and postures used during the cleaning procedure –- which can contribute to WMSDs are:
– Awkward Postures: bending at the waist while cleaning, performing wiping tasks with bent wrists, working overhead, twisting and reaching to clean hard-to-reach areas.
– Repetitive Motions: vacuuming, wiping, grasping, bending to empty trash cans, and others
– Forceful or Repetitive Exertion: for example pushing heavy carts; moving furniture; lifting mattresses; and carrying linen or trash
– Contact Stress: frequent kneeling or crawling on floors
– Vibration from machines can also be a contributor.
– Combinations of the above
Sounds familiar – right? Yes, that is the nature of cleaning work. So what can an employer do? The short answer is Accumulate Preventions!
Injury prevention in this industry requires effort on multiple fronts: tools and equipment, policies and procedures, education and training, communication and monitoring. Many small actions taken together can make a significant impact.
1) The most effective actions are “engineered” solutions that eliminate or minimize the risk of injury. Actions can include selecting the right tools and equipment for the capabilities and limitations of your workforce. For example:
Are the vacuums provided light?
Are carts fitted with the right castors for the surfaces traveled?
Do the tools promote neutral work postures of the spine and upper extremities – for example, mop handles which are adjustable to fit the worker?
2) If engineered solutions are not possible to implement, then the next step is to put in place administrative controls. These are policies and procedures that foster a safe working environment. Examples are:
– Scheduling adequate breaks and micro-breaks and ensuring that the employees take them
– Work assignments shall be distributed to vary demands on the body
– Assigning two workers to tasks like turning mattresses or emptying large trash bins
– Instituting and enforcing a policy regarding the overfilling of laundry hampers
3) Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) are another consideration. For WMSD prevention, an example would be providing knee pads for tasks involving kneeling or crawling.
4) Job and safety training for employees can teach staff the risks inherent in their work and the work practices that minimize those risks. Work practice examples are changing trash can liners at waist height or bending at the knees while making beds.
5) Encourage and support employee involvement and send the message that their safety and essential work is recognized:
Solicit employees’ ideas and “best practices.”
– Encourage early reporting of discomfort so you can intervene with training or changes.
– Establish a process and expectation that employees report malfunctioning equipment.
– Discuss tasks employees find challenging.
6) Monitor the results by regularly discussing with staff what works and what does not. Taken together, these activities can build a culture of risk prevention at your company. An effective ergonomics program has a positive, cumulative effect which will create a virtuous cycle of improvements for your company’s bottom line and for the well-being of your team.
Mark Barnett is Head of Ergonomics for WorkSafe Technology Inc., and has eighteen years of work experience in ergonomics with employers that include municipalities, counties and healthcare providers.