floor mopping

Pain, floor mopping, and the pandemic

The health and injury risk posed by floor mopping deserves increased attention.
Monday, December 7, 2020
Drew Bunn

It should not come as a surprise that professional cleaning has changed dramatically due to the pandemic.

Building owners and managers, as well as school administrators, now want more cleaning and more effective cleaning. And what we are finding is that the infection control qualities of many old cleaning systems and methods used for decades are now being second-guessed.

For years, one method of cleaning that has been questioned and is undoubtedly under much more scrutiny today is floor mopping. Studies coming out of China earlier in the year have found that the pathogens that cause the virus can collect on floors. Once on floors, these pathogens can be transferred to mops, allowing them to be “transported” around a facility, potentially spreading the disease.

Inherent injury risk

However, another pre-existing issue that has surfaced about floor mopping that is garnering considerable and increased attention right now, is that mopping floors can be a health risk. More specifically, it can result in musculoskeletal injuries.

In fact, floor mopping can be far more health-risking than we realized. This is based on a new study, “Prevalence of MSDs and Postural Risk Assessment in Floor Mopping Activity Through Subjective and Objective Measures,” published earlier this year in the occupational health publication, Safety and Health at Work.

Complicating this situation is the fact that building owners, managers, and administrators not only want more effective cleaning due to COVID-19, but they also want more cleaning in general. This means that hard surface floors, which may have only been mopped two or three times per week in the past, are now being cleaned five or more times per week.

Participant selection

To better understand this problem requires taking a closer look at this incredibly detailed study. The researchers randomly selected 132 cleaning workers to mop a floor area of approximately 64 square feet. They were to perform this task five times, taking a five-minute break after each mopping session.

The researchers were cautious in whom they selected to participate in the study. For instance:

  • they wanted to know if the cleaning workers had worked as a cleaning professional for at least six months. Many had been custodial workers for several years.
  • they wanted to know if the workers worked during the day or at night and whether this information might impact the data.
  • they wanted both males and females in the study.
  • social and demographic data were collected, as were the participants’ age, their education levels, height, body mass index, and their dominant hand.
  • job satisfaction and general health were also considered.
  • more specific health issues were considered such as past injuries, particularly involving the back, neck, arms, and upper and lower body.

Along with being careful about who was asked to participate in the study, the researchers wanted to make sure the floor mops used — referred to as mop sticks — were all the same. Further, the mop stick or pole used had to reach between the participant’s chin and shoulders. This helped ensure the mop was held correctly and that the mopping process was performed following generally accepted best practices.

Pain determination

To determine if the mopping process was causing the workers pain, the researchers took a two-fold approach. First, they asked the workers to fill out a questionnaire as they worked. For instance, if experiencing pain, the questionnaire asked where they were noticing the problem. In the arms? Biceps? Wrist? Shoulders? A combination?

The second approach involved the use of electromyogram (EMG) testing. An EMG records the electrical activity of muscles in the human body. Some enhanced electrical activity would be considered normal when mopping floors, but, beyond a certain point, it could indicate pain in muscles and surrounding areas.

The questionnaires and the EMG tests were compared and it was based on these results that the researchers were able to determine a “pain rating.” This indicated whether the cleaning workers were experiencing pain as they mopped the floors and at what levels. It was believed that over time, this pain would become more noticeable and potentially debilitating.

Revealing results

Among the results noticed were:

  • Those who had worked as cleaning professionals for one to five years reported the most pain.
  • Right shoulder and right-hand pain was reported by 93 per cent of those participating in the study.
  • Nearly 91 per cent of the workers reported some lower back pain and pain in elbows, right wrists, and right triceps.
  • Left and right bicep pain was reported by 82 per cent.
  • Neck and left shoulder pain were reported by 78 per cent.

Pain relief

The study concluded that many of the cleaning workers experiencing pain required “ergonomic interventions.” In other words, the study determined that the workers needed to be taught, among other things:

  • how to perform mopping tasks properly
  • how far to hold the mops from their bodies
  • how to avoid excessive bending
  • how to not overemphasize the use of some muscles while underutilizing other muscles
  • a host of other ergonomic issues that were found to be causing the pain

Alternative floor cleaning solutions

Another option, which was not discussed in the study but certainly still applies, is to stop mopping floors entirely and consider floor cleaning alternatives. After all, this would help eliminate the pain and, because we know the mopping process can spread pathogens, it could also help in the fight against the pandemic.

In most cases, this means using machines that clean floors automatically, eliminating the use of mops. A traditional option has been the use of “auto scrubbers,” a machinate version of floor scrubbers. While undoubtedly useful, these are costly machines, require considerable training, and need regular servicing and maintenance. Auto scrubbers are considered complicated pieces of machinery.

Another possibility is the use of “auto vacs.” Once again, no mops are used with these machines. Independently tested, they have been proven comparable in performance to the scrubbers just discussed. However, they cost less, require minimal training, and because there are few moving parts, they require minimal service or repair.

Whichever alternative floor cleaning option is adopted, the potential for musculoskeletal injuries is reduced dramatically, if not eliminated. Further, because no mops are used, and these mop-free systems are designed to apply only fresh water and cleaning solution to floors, the result is cleaner, healthier floors, which should help us slow the spread of this pandemic.

Drew Bunn works with Kaivac, manufacturers of professional cleaning systems and equipment designed to help eliminate the spread of infection. He can be reached at DBunn@kaivac.com.

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