Accommodations/food service Injury prevention

Keeping hotel housekeepers safe

Awareness and education can help prevent injuries

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Key points

  • In 2012, hospitality workers union UNITE HERE sent a petition to the California Department of Industrial Relations’ Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, asking for a standard to protect hotel and hospitality workers.
  • Worker advocates say larger mattresses, heavier bath linen and an increase in the number of amenities that require cleaning put workers at risk of injury.
  • Cal/OSHA has hosted advisory committee meetings on a draft proposal for a hotel housekeeper musculoskeletal disorder prevention standard.

Additional resource

A hotel housekeeper’s duties can be grueling and intense – and can result in serious injuries.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2013 shows that hotel and motel workers had a nonfatal injury and illness rate of 5.4. The rate for all industries was 3.5.

“As more amenities continue to be offered in hotel rooms, housekeepers often are having to work even harder and more quickly,” said Gary Allread, program director of the Institute for Ergonomics at Ohio State University in Columbus.

Advocates are calling for stronger protections and better ergonomics training for hotel housekeeping workers.

More work, more hazards

In 2012, hospitality workers union UNITE HERE sent a petition to the California Department of Industrial Relations’ Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board. The petition called for a standard to protect hospitality workers as hotels compete to offer more luxurious settings for their guests. Upgraded mattresses can weigh more than 100 pounds, UNITE HERE claims, and bath linen is larger and heavier – putting housekeeping workers at risk of overexertion. More amenities, such as larger mirrors and TVs, have to be cleaned.

“What you’re seeing now when you go into the hotel room, it’s not just two pillows on a bed, it’s four or five,” said Lorne Scarlett, industry specialist with the Workers’ Compensation Board of British Columbia, also known as WorkSafe BC. “That process they go through stuffing a pillow, they’re doing that four to five times per bed. The cleanliness of the room is scrutinized by the larger, luxury hotels. They’re not just doing a light dust. They’re doing a very determined clean each time.”

According to Ohio State University, other injury risk factors are:

  • “Forceful exertions,” including pushing heavy carts and using vacuum cleaners
  • Awkward postures while cleaning bathrooms and other areas
  • Repetitive motions, such as cleaning mirrors and changing pillowcases Maintaining postures for long periods
  • Little rest

“The good thing is we can reduce those risks through just plain, out-front awareness and education,” Scarlett said.

What one state is doing

In California, UNITE HERE’s petition called for the “promulgation of a safety and health standard to address the occupational hazards faced by housekeepers in the hotel and hospitality industry.” The California Department of Industrial Relations’ Division of Occupational Safety and Health, also known as Cal/OSHA, has hosted advisory committee meetings to discuss the “next steps” and has collected data and input from employers, workers, and safety and health professionals but has not yet determined whether a standard will be adopted.

Cal/OSHA Senior Safety Engineer Amalia Neidhardt said some workers have reported they are rushed to complete work and their training is too broad.

“They are told how to lift properly, bend their knees, but nothing that is specific or tailored to their task,” Neidhardt said. “They need to be provided appropriate tools. We can’t prescribe everyone be given the same size, for instance, of long-handled tools, because in some situations, the bathrooms are so small they’ll be striking other objects. It has to be tailored to their particular task and workplace.”

Get more information on Cal/OSHA’s advisory committee meetings about housekeeping in the hotel and hospitality industry.

A document from a March 2013 advisory meeting cites data on California workers in the Workers’ Compensation Information System. Most injuries to hotel workers (nearly 30 percent) occurred while making beds, followed by cleaning bathrooms (nearly 25 percent).

“A lot of these injuries are occurring in tasks associated with bathroom cleaning,” Neidhardt said. “For instance, they’re mopping floors, they slip. The workers reach the back of the shower, they’re stepping on the rim or getting inside the tub, they’re slipping. There are also injuries when making the bed. You also see injuries associated with pushing and pulling carts. Some hotels have carpet. If it’s very thick, it’s going to require a lot of pushing and pulling.

“If they’re carrying heavy linen, they don’t see where they’re walking. They could trip. These injuries can be disabling for the back, shoulder. Multiple areas can be hurt.”

Cal/OSHA met in December to gather input on a revised discussion draft for a possible standard on hotel housekeeper musculoskeletal injury prevention. (At press time, meeting minutes were unavailable.)

Intended for discussion, the draft states that each applicable employer should have in place a musculoskeletal injury prevention program that identifies, evaluates and abates housekeeping hazards. Employers also should provide training in a language the worker understands. According to the draft, training should include components such as:

  • Signs and risk factors for musculoskeletal injuries
  • Elements of the musculoskeletal injury prevention program
  • How to report safety issues without fear of retaliation
  • Practice with the tools workers will use on the job
  • An opportunity for discussion with an individual knowledgeable about housekeeping procedures and equipment

“We believe the revised Cal/OSHA discussion draft released in August, if implemented correctly by employers, can contribute to reducing hotel housekeeper injuries, injuries that are preventable,” Pamela Vossenas, coordinator of workplace safety and health for UNITE HERE, told Safety+Health in October.

Some hotels already recognize the issue, UNITE HERE acknowledged in its 2012 petition. One hotel chain has introduced a device to help workers make beds. Another performed an ergonomics analysis on its new bedding.

In addition, Scarlett said, some hotels are responding by using safer chemicals, stocking rooms with lighter furniture, refraining from flipping mattresses and encouraging workers to stretch before work.

“We’re starting to see some changes within industry,” he said, “mostly because of the amount of time loss they see attached to these musculoskeletal types of injuries.”

Focus on ergonomics

Several resources are available from OSHA and Ohio State University to help housekeeping workers avoid on-the-job injuries. The materials highlight injury risk factors as well as strategies to stay healthy, noting that supervisors should allow workers to help identify issues and determine solutions, as well as be proactive in making changes.

Read a variety of training materials from Ohio State University and OSHA.

Tips for staying safe include:

  • When making beds, do not bend. Position yourself near the bed.
  • When cleaning surfaces, switch off which arm you are using to allow the other arm to rest.
  • When moving carts, keep the heaviest or commonly used items between your chest and hips – you have more strength in this part of the body.
  • Wear comfortable shoes.
  • Stretch your back, arms and shoulders.
  • Report any pain.
  • Share strategies used to make work easier.
  • Eat healthy, exercise and sleep well.

WorkSafeBC also offers several resources for hospitality workers. Seven videos released in May show best work practices to help prevent injuries while performing tasks such as dusting, wringing liquid out of cloths and emptying garbage cans. For example, the video about making beds encourages workers to bend their knees instead of their back and put bedding in a bin rather than on the floor.

Watch WorkSafe BC videos about housekeeper safety.

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