Hand injuries from chemicals are a leading cause of injury in the cleaning industry.

Toward Safer Cleaning Operations

According to OSHA, 40 percent of all janitorial injuries involve eye irritations or burns; 36 percent are skin irritations or burns; and 12 percent are the result of breathing fumes.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2010, there were approximately 2.5 million cleaning workers in the United States. The actual number may be considerably higher, however, because many cleaning workers own their businesses and might not be included in this number. Additionally, cleaning workers who work part time may not be counted.

Cleaning work can be quite dangerous because workers are exposed to a variety of on-the-job hazards. These include walking on wet floors, standing on stools and ladders, bending and lifting, making repetitive movements and motions, maintaining awkward positions, carrying tools and equipment, and using a range of cleaning tools and equipment. The result is that many cleaning workers are exposed to high-risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders. BLS reports that 20 percent of the occupational accidents and injuries in the United States occur within just five industries, with cleaning and janitorial work among them.1

A Washington State study found that cleaning workers have an annual incidence rate of 10.4 injury claims per 100 workers. This compares to the overall service industry, which has about half this rate of claims. However, the cleaning industry's actual rate of injury may be considerably higher, given that accidents and injuries often go unreported.

Given how dangerous this work can be and how costly an injury can be for workers and their employers, it is critically important that facility administrators, as well as the professional cleaning industry, encourage safer, more ergonomic ways to perform cleaning tasks.

The following paragraphs present three specific cleaning tasks—floor mopping, vacuuming, and cleaning with chemicals—along with their risk factors and ways to make them safer.

Cleaning chemicals, both green and conventional, are usually safe as long as they are used properly, said Jennifer Meek of Charlotte Products/Enviro-Solutions, a leading manufacturer of professional cleaning chemicals. "The problems occur when they are not used properly or, when using green cleaning chemicals, custodial workers believe just because it is green it is safe. All cleaning chemicals must be used properly to promote safety," she said.

The key concerns with cleaning chemicals are the fumes that may be released by the chemicals, improperly diluting the chemicals with water, as well as skin and eye irritation. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as many as 40 percent of all janitorial injuries involve eye irritations or burns; 36 percent are skin irritations or burns; and 12 percent are the result of breathing fumes.

Additionally, chemical-related problems occur when chemicals are not stored properly or are mixed with chemicals that can produce very unhealthy, if not deadly, fumes. According to Meek, chemicals should always be stored in gallon containers, off the floor so that they are easy to reach, with similar chemicals stored in the same area. If workers have a second language, labels or storage areas should be written in both first and second languages or a color-coding system should be implemented.

As to mixing chemicals, bleach is invariably the chemical to use most carefully. Mixed with ammonia, it can produce mustard gas. Other serious health risks are present when bleach is mixed with the following common cleaning chemicals:

  • Glass or window cleaner
  • Chlorinated scouring powder
  • Drain cleaner
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Chlorinated disinfectants
  • Vinegar

"The most effective way to prevent cleaning chemical–related injuries is proper training of cleaning workers on an ongoing basis," Meek said. "While an MSDS2 can be accessed in an emergency, the goal is to never have that emergency. Training is the best way to prevent it."

At 29 CFR 1910.138(a), OSHA states that employers should select and require workers to wear appropriate hand protection when their hands are exposed to hazards such as skin absorption of harmful substances, cuts or lacerations, chemical burns, thermal burns, and severe abrasions. Employees should base the PPE selection on a hazard assessment, according to the agency’s PPE standard.

Traditional floor mopping using a mop-and-bucket system has several MSD risk factors, especially given the fact that a bucket when filled with water can weigh as much as 40 pounds. Because of the way most buckets are designed, filling or emptying a bucket requires the cleaning worker to lift the bucket from floor level to a waist-level sink. Even if the drain area is at floor level, the worker still must bend or squat to lift the bucket for draining, creating an opportunity for a strained back.

The actual mopping process is also viewed as a risk factor. It entails wringing out the mop head, lifting and carrying the mop while it is wet, and then using repetitive motions to perform the actual mopping. Additionally, many mop poles may be too short or too long for the worker, which can negatively impact shoulders and require reaching or bending to use the mop effectively. Not to be forgotten, mopping a floor means the floor is now wet, making a slip-and-fall accident more likely. Some chemicals used to clean floors also can increase the likelihood of a slip-and-fall accident.

To reduce these risk factors, administrators should ensure cleaning workers use lighter mop heads, such as microfiber mop heads. They also should select bottom-draining buckets, buckets that can be filled with a hose system, and mop poles that are telescoping and can be adjusted to the appropriate length for each cleaning worker.

Another option, according to Rick Goggins, CPE, an ergonomist in the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (Olympia, Wash.), is the use of "no-touch" cleaning systems. A typical system might include a water tank that can be filled and emptied with a hose to eliminate lifting; a metered sprayer for applying cleaning solution; an indoor power washer for rinsing the cleaning solution; and a wet/dry vacuum for cleaning and drying the floor.

"These systems can reduce lifting, awkward postures, and repetitive motions related to mopping and scrubbing," Goggins said. "Some systems also include training materials [onboard, in the form of videos and printed information] that can help to standardize cleaning processes."

The risks for MSDs from vacuuming can impact all cleaning workers because vacuums are the one tool used by almost all cleaning technicians. Most cleaning workers use upright vacuum cleaners, which require considerable hand and arm movement as well as grip force to use. Awkward posture is also often required, and the worker must repeatedly lift and carry the machine, then plug it in and unplug it from the wall, all of which can put stress on the back, shoulders, arms, and wrists. Noise and soiled exhaust can further negatively impact the worker.

Newer vacuum cleaners have several features that make them easier to use and help eliminate the risk for MSDs. For instance, according to Jolynn Kennedy with Tornado Industries, a leading manufacturer of professional vacuum cleaners, some vacuum cleaners now weigh as little as eight pounds, have 50-foot cords, are quieter, and have multi-stage or HEPA filtration systems that prevent dust from being released from the vacuum's exhaust to help protect indoor air quality.

"Another option is to consider other types of vacuum cleaners," says Kennedy. "For instance, some new backpack vacuums have totally redesigned harnesses that are much more comfortable to wear and stabilize and balance the machine so it is far easier to use."

Backpacks also get the ergonomic endorsement of Goggins, who adds that studies have shown that backpacks can "increase productivity by as much as 100 percent while requiring the same amount of operator energy expenditure as upright vacuums."

"Furthermore," he states, "in situations where stairways must be vacuumed, backpack vacuums leave one hand free to use the handrail."

Long-Term Solutions
One of the best ways to minimize the number of cleaning-related injuries is very simply to find ways to do less cleaning. There are systematic approaches that can accomplish this. For instance, does your facility have 15 feet of matting installed at key entries? Fifteen feet of matting can keep as much as 80 percent of outside soil, moisture, and contaminants from entering the building.

Also, HVAC filter systems that are changed regularly reduce the amount of dust in the facility, and installing sensor-controlled faucets, paper dispensers, toilets, and urinals decreases the number of fixtures that must be cleaned. Some facilities have even done away with the traditional trash can at every workstation. Emptying trash is very taxing on the body and a frequent cause of musculoskeletal injuries. Switching to a centralized trash can to serve many workers is one of the easiest and most cost-effective steps administrators can take to make cleaning safer and healthier.

1. As of 2011; the other occupations included in this top category include laborers, nursing aides/orderlies, heavy tractor/trailer/truck drivers, and police officers.
2. Safety Data Sheets accompany all cleaning chemicals sold in North America. They list the key ingredients in the chemical, as well as emergency phone numbers should an injury or accident occur.

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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