Cleaning up safety

Janitors and cleaners face multiple hazards


Behavioral impact on safety

Besides the inherent environmental and physical injury risks faced by janitors and cleaners, behavioral and work process issues also need to be considered. When commercial cleaning providers do not take adequate safety precautions, Poole said, it often is because they are more focused on the task of cleaning. “I think people get caught up in making a profit or doing a job, but they forget that critical safety component,” he said. “Sometimes workers do not think through what they are getting ready to do and what their impact will be when they are doing it. The next thing you know, someone is on the floor with a busted knee or hip.”

Jon Lucas, supervisor of operations for public schools at Omaha Public Schools in Nebraska, said cleaners may become complacent if they have not been injured in the past. “Even if they have been doing it for a long time and have an excellent track record, [we encourage workers to] take their time, slow down … and follow instructions,” he said.

Training issues

The demographics of some janitors and cleaners can create safety challenges for their supervisors and safety managers. According to the ASSE report, janitorial and housecleaning positions often attract immigrants who cannot find positions in other fields due to language barriers. As a result, the report stated, language and cultural roadblocks can make training these workers difficult. The report also found that the low educational requirements of the job come with higher-than-average illiteracy levels, decreasing the effectiveness of training manuals and materials.

The occupation’s high turnover rate also can present a problem. “Whenever you have high turnover, the chance of workers being well-trained and experienced in processes and procedures goes down, and the chance of injury and improper procedures and ineffective methods goes up,” Rathey said.

The report recommended that supervisors employ hands-on training and mentorship from bilingual peers when possible to ensure these workers receive proper training.

Additional Resources:

  • Information on chemical safety and exposure
  • Sample hazard communication training program
  • A Cal/OSHA guide for janitor safety
  • Spanish-language compliance assistance resources

Contract versus in-house workers

Most janitors and cleaners are considered “in-house” workers who have safety training provided by their organization, but about a third work for outside firms that supply cleaning services, according to BLS data from 2008. However, even if an organization uses contract workers, in certain circumstances it still can be held responsible for the safety of those workers, Barth said. “When someone uses a third-party cleaning service, the third party is responsible for the safety of their employees – unless the host party is somehow negligent and [that negligence] leads to an injury to the contracted employee,” he said.

Reasons that businesses use contract workers include reduced costs and the belief that such workers perform higher quality work, Rathey said. There are disadvantages as well, he said: Teachers at schools, for instance, may not be able to get to know these workers as well as their own in-house custodial crews. “One of the dilemmas or concerns teachers have of cleaners being contracted out is that they do not know the people anymore,” Rathey said. “They knew Joe the Janitor; they knew that person and how they did things and their record. With external workers, they are strangers to some extent. You lose that sense of community and continuity with in-house.”

For both in-house or contract workers, continuous certification from accredited organizations is essential for safety, according to Romo. He recommends that cleaners and commercial cleaning operations keep up to date with safety tips and information from organizations such as the International Executive Housekeepers Association and the National Fire Protection Association.

Additionally, an effective safety culture within organizations is one of the most important aspects of performing the job safely, Rathey said. “The biggest thing is that safety cultures exist – it is not just about a procedures manual, a policy or something on the wall,” he said. “Organizations have cultures, and if the in-house culture is strong, that is a real benefit [to businesses]. Contractors can have that, too – it is just a little harder to ensure that without doing due diligence.”

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