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Janitors Have One Of The Highest On-The-Job Injury Rates Of Any Workers

Alessandro Della Valle
AP Photo

Janitors and custodians have some of the highest on-the-job injury rates of any occupation, ranking higher than heavy equipment operators and tractor trailer truck drivers. Although not usually deadly, the injuries among people who clean for a living can leave the workers with chronic and lifelong pain. At the University of Washington, there’s an effort to reduce the injury rate. Debra Milek, Medical Director of the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Clinic at Harborview, (She’s also an Adjunct Professor in the U.W. Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, an Associate Professor in General Internal Medicine and an Occupational Medical Physician) said when reviewing the injury rates of workers at the University of Washington, it was evident that custodians had among the highest. Only nursing assistants had a greater incidence of injuries that were severe enough to warrant time off work.

Most Injuries Are Ergonomic 

Working with a team from the University, Milek sent out a survey to all custodians, then followed up by filming them at work. She says it was apparent that most injuries were ergonomic in nature. All that scrubbing and vacuuming takes a toll because the body is often in a position that, over time, can cause back and other problems. She says you want to keep the body in a neutral posture as much as possible.

Backpack Vacuum Biggest Culprit

The backpack vacuum was a big source of problems for workers because people of different sizes often shared one pack.

“You would have a tall person and a short person and they might tie the harness to their own fit and so that would be uncomfortable for one of the people,” Milek said.

She says it's not just uncomfortable, but potentially harmful, creating long term shoulder and back problems. She says even when there were ways to adjust the packs people often aren’t taught how.

“I’ve seen this in my clinic, my occupational medicine clinic, where people have come in with back injuries and I’ve asked them about their training and they haven’t had training,” she said.

Or they simply don’t have time to keep adjusting the thing.

As a result of the findings, the University began issuing individual backpack vacuums, adjusted to fit.

Magnets On Bathroom Stall Doors Make A Difference

As a result of Milek's project to improve workplace safety for custodians, other changes have been made as well.

For example, people were extending their hip to hold the bathroom stall door open while cleaning the toilets.

“So what we did was install magnets on the bathroom stall doors to hold that door open while they cleaned and so they no longer have to put their hip out to the left to hold that door open,” Milek said. 

The Forgotten Workers On the Ergonomic Front

The importance of an ergonomically designed workplace has long been recognized as important for other workers.  People who work at desks have access to everything from adjustable chairs to keyboards that help prevent repetitive stress injuries. But, Milek says people who clean the offices have pretty much been forgotten on the ergonomic front.

She says the U.W. team talked with manufacturers about designing more ergonomic tools for custodians, but didn’t get any interest. So, they looked around and found a possible solution on the U.W. campus.

Mechanical Engineering Students Work On Tools For Janitors

They tapped students in the Mechanical Engineering program to come up with ideas for ergonomic tools.

Right now, the students are working to design a toilet brush that extends so workers won’t have to bend down no matter their height.

“So, while we don’t have the manufacturers on board, we do have our students working on it,” Milek said.

Custodians Bring Ideas To The Table Of Ways To Improve Safety

Milek has also enlisted the help of the workers  themselves. Ideas are solicited through regular meetings.

“Custodians are bringing more issues to the front that we didn’t know about. People are sharing their best practices.” Milek said.

Often, she says, small things can have a big impact when it comes to reducing repetitive stress and other injuries related to the physical labor done by custodians.

Milek says since the project began the injury rate among the 250 custodians at the University does seem to be trending down.   

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.