Hidden costs of custodial injuries

Cleaning is a particularly hazardous job, and employers face a number of less-than-obvious consequences associated with workplace incidents.
Thursday, May 25, 2017
By Michael Wilson

Cleaning is considered a hazardous job in many parts of the world. Typically, the types of work-related injuries that cleaning workers experience fall into one of two key categories. The first is exposure to harmful contaminants, including blood-borne contaminants, either through direct touch or inhalation. The second is musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) as the result of repetitive movements; slip, trip, and fall accidents; back injuries due to heavy lifting, stretching, and bending; and so on.

While many injuries do not require medical attention or time off from work, a number do. One example is musculoskeletal injuries. For every 10,000 workers, more than 81 such incidents require days off, with 42.1 the result of heavy lifting, reports the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s assumed these statistics apply to Canadian cleaning workers as well.

However, cleaning contractors and facility managers that hire their own cleaning staff are often not aware of the hidden costs that can result from worker injuries. Sometimes these are direct, tangible costs, and other times they are less tangible, making them harder to recognize.

Remember: When it comes to cleaning, time is money. Anything that slows cleaning and impairs worker productivity invariably translates into increased costs.

Further, along with not being aware of these hidden costs, many managers and cleaning contractors do not realize just how big of an impact these injuries can have on their daily business operations. There are a number of costs and impacts associated with injuries that often fall under the radar.

When an accident occurs, supervisors must be called in to investigate what happened, taking them away from their typical duties, which can impact cleaning operations. The same goes for cleaning contractors who have to explain the injury to building managers, and for building managers who have to explain what happened to injury representatives, should they be called in. It takes time for clerical staff (or the business owner) to fill out paperwork related to the injury.

Time is also often lost by other cleaning workers discussing the accident. There can be damage to crew morale and potential ill will directed toward their employer.

Consider too the loss of efficiency and worker productivity if a sidelined worker breaks up a crew. Opportunities to respond to customer requests can be lost or delayed because of being shorthanded. If the injury results in having to hire a new cleaning worker, the cost and time of training that worker and acclimating him or her to the new work area must be considered.

There can be costs to repair tools and equipment that may have been damaged as a result of the injury. There can also be equipment downtime if the accident requires equipment to be repaired.

Establishing a worker safety program

As shown, these hidden costs can certainly have a large and unfortunate impact on the business and on the workers. This is one of many reasons, which also notably include obligations under workplace health and safety laws, why building managers and cleaning contractors should establish some type of worker safety program to protect their workers on the job.

Establishing such a worker safety program can be a bit difficult to get off the ground. The best way to tackle it is to take it a step at a time. For cleaning contractors, large or small, and building managers that have their own cleaning staff, the following steps apply.

First, gather data to identify the hazards and risks that staff may encounter. Note: Hazards and risks are not the same. A hazard refers to something that has the potential to cause harm, whereas risk refers to the likelihood that an injury will occur.

Compile a list of all the accidents reported by cleaning workers over a two-year period; two years provides enough time to create a solid benchmark.

  • Analyze this data to glean some of the following details:
  • What types of injuries the cleaning crew experiences and how often they occur;
  • The seriousness of these injuries;
  • If these injuries most frequently occur when performing certain tasks (e.g. lifting, vacuuming, performing floorcare);
  • When these injuries most frequently occur (e.g. day, evening, or weekends);
  • If these injuries most frequently involve specific types of cleaning solutions, certain cleaning equipment, and so on; and
  • Where (or in what types of facilities) injuries most frequently occur (restroom areas versus office areas, for instance).

Then, look for patterns in these details. Cleaning contractors and building managers typically find that the most common injuries fall into the following categories:

  • Chemical-related accidents
  • Sprains or fractures
  • Carpal tunnel/tendinitis
  • Cuts, bruises, and burns, especially to hands
  • Back injuries/back pain

Working toward a safety solution

Compiling this data can reveal many things. While any injury is one too many, if a crew suffers frequent injuries, then establishing a worker safety program is imperative. The goal of the safety program is to prevent accidents and injuries.

Suppose that the most frequent and most serious injuries workers suffer are chemical related. This means that there is high risk and this is a serious hazard. The first step in preventing this type of injury is training cleaning workers how to mix, dilute, and use cleaning solutions properly. Demonstration videos are helpful. However, a more effective way to accomplish this may be by having a janitorial distributor provide a safety training seminar on-site for the crew.

The distributor may suggest installing auto-dispensing systems to reduce the risk of injury from chemical use. Further, he or she may recommend that the building manager or cleaning contractor invest in specific protective gear such as gowns, chemical-resistant gloves and protective eye gear. When purchasing eye gear, it is important to look for “indirect” or “non-vented” goggles. They are designed to help prevent spills and splashes from getting into the eyes.

It’s also wise to create “safety mentors.” Safety mentors are cleaning workers that have been specially trained how to perform cleaning tasks safely. They can be called upon whenever there is the risk of danger to help remind cleaning workers how to perform all cleaning tasks so as to minimize the risk and hazard.

Finally, if the analysis indicates that a specific type of cleaning solution causes serious injury, consider looking for a safer alternative product. It’s possible to avoid trial and error when selecting a replacement product by working with a distributor with access to online technologies. Such dashboard systems do the homework by suggesting products that can both minimize the risk and hazard of certain types of injuries. At least one of these online technologies is free and can be used by both building managers and cleaning contractors to help make cleaning safer.

The lack of awareness around the on-the-job hazards of professional cleaning may be due to the fact that crews often perform their duties after business hours and on weekends. However, it’s possible to help reduce these work-related injuries by being aware of the risk and implementing worker safety programs. The benefits are manifold, as this not only protects workers and helps uphold workplace health and safety obligations under the law, but it cuts down on hidden but avoidable costs.

Michael Wilson is vice president of marketing for AFFLINK, a global leader in supply chain optimization and developer of ELEVATE, an online technology that provides clients with innovative process and procurement solutions to drive efficiencies in today’s leading businesses. He can be reached through his company website at www.AFFLINK.com.

This article was modified from the original, which appeared in the April issue of Canadian Facility Management & Design.



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