Cleaning up safety

Janitors and cleaners face multiple hazards

March 1, 2012


  • Cleaning supervisors and building management should be aware of respiratory and skin reactions to various chemicals, and in certain industries, the risk of bloodborne pathogens.
  • Mentorship, hands-on training and using resources printed in multiple languages can help address training difficulties due to the demographics found in this occupation.
  • Employers can avoid citations by following all applicable OSHA standards, such as hazard communication labeling and proper personal protective equipment use.

Without a janitor or building cleaner to disinfect objects and surfaces, repair lighting fixtures and perform maintenance on the environmental systems that make workspaces comfortable, employees’ workdays would be much more hazardous, unclean and unpleasant.

No employee may have a greater impact on a building’s safety and health environment than a janitor or cleaner, said John Poole, master registered executive housekeeper, Cleaning Industry Management Standard assessor and authorized OSHA outreach trainer.

Poole, who has worked for multiple commercial cleaning companies in addition to serving as an in-house cleaner and supervisor at organizations since 1973, advocates safety training for janitors and cleaners. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010, janitors and cleaners suffered more than 46,000 injuries requiring days away from work and had the 16th highest injury rate of all occupations.

Workers in this industry face a variety of both physical and environmental hazards. Because of this occupation’s high level of injury risk, supervisors and building management must take precautions to protect these workers from harm. Allen Rathey, president of the Boise, ID-based Healthy Facilities Institute (HFI), said training and standardizing procedures based on established laws and regulations are important to ensuring safety. “[An effective safety program] is the combination of training, handbooks, field application and classroom application training, and mindfulness of the ‘right-to-know’ laws,” he said. Right-to-know laws empower cleaners to understand the hazards of the chemicals they use in their jobs, he added.

Statistics, standards

Harmful exposure

Janitors and cleaners are exposed to powerful and potentially dangerous chemicals when using cleaning agents. OSHA requires chemical hazards to be communicated to workers through labels on containers, Material Safety Data Sheets and applicable employee training.

 According to ISSA, a worldwide cleaning association headquartered in Lincolnwood, IL, one of the key injury concerns regarding chemical exposure is lung and nasal passage damage. Poole recalled an incident where a cleaner sniffed a bottle to identify its contents. The bottle contained ammonia, and the worker suffered severe mucus membrane damage and needed to be hospitalized. This emphasizes the importance of labeling all containers with applicable chemical information in addition to their risks and dangers, Poole said.

Another potential exposure concern for these workers involves infectious diseases. OSHA’s bloodborne pathogen guidelines mandate that employers have exposure control plans that list possible exposure scenarios and methods to reduce exposure risk, such as applicable personal protective equipment and procedures to reduce surface and object contamination. These regulations usually only apply to janitorial staff working in health care or certain education settings, according to ISSA.

Musculoskeletal disorders

Back injuries (about 46 percent) and shoulder injuries (about 15 percent) were the leading musculoskeletal disorder-causing injuries requiring time off work for janitors and cleaners in 2010, according to BLS.

An American Society of Safety Engineers report on hazards faced by janitors and cleaners offers several solutions to these common MSD injuries, which are often caused by overexertion and repetitive motions. The report recommended providing equipment that reduces the amount workers need to bend and stretch, such as long-handled and angled tools, and increasing use of battery-powered equipment. The report also suggested increasing the use of “no-touch” cleaning systems, which include movable tanks and carts of water or cleaning solutions that can be sprayed rather than applied manually.

Luis Romo, environmental service manager for Seattle-based Crista Senior Living, said that for years, his facility’s housekeepers complained about pain in their hands, wrists and backs. After conducting an assessment, he found that the heavy housekeeping carts the cleaners used – which had been used for 10 years at the facility – were causing strains. He eventually found a more ergonomically safe cart solution that he slowly implemented into the facility. In the year or so since the implementation, overall complaints about back, wrist and hand pain have significantly decreased, he said.

Slips, trips and falls

Cleaners deal with wet and slippery surfaces when mopping, waxing and scrubbing floors. Janitors often need to use ladders to reach lighting fixtures and other equipment for replacements and light repairs. As a result, slips, trips and falls cause some of the most serious and disabling injuries among building janitors and cleaners, according to ISSA.

OSHA’s Walking-Working Surfaces Standard (1910.22) establishes that passageways and storerooms used by cleaners and all other workers must be free of obstacles and other hazards. The American National Standards Institute A1264.2-2006 standard mandates the use of signage and other warning devices for locations where trip and slip hazards are present. It also mandates the use of slip-resistant footwear and training procedures to ensure workers maintain safe walking speeds.

One of the most common workers’ compensation claims in the hospitality industry involves slips while cleaning restrooms, according to Stephen Barth, attorney, professor of hospitality law and leadership at the University of Houston Conrad Hilton College, and founder of HospitalityLawyer.com. As a solution, he recommends hotels and contractors provide their cleaners with longer tools to reach and scrub, and cautions workers to not stand in bathtubs when cleaning shower areas.

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.”