Cleaning workers are ubiquitous and the work that they do is essential in every industry. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are over four million people employed as cleaning workers in the United States, many of them working in low-paying, temporary or part-time jobs, with little opportunity for training or advancement. Much of the work is done in the evening or at night, and many of these workers may also have another job, school, or their own household duties during the day. These working conditions create a high turnover rate in the industry.

Cleaning work involves exposure to a number of hazards, including wet floors, working on ladders, use of chemicals, and motor vehicle accidents. They also are exposed to a number of risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), such as lifting, carrying, awkward postures, repetitive motions, and high hand forces. These exposures result in a high rate of injuries. According to Washington State workers' compensation data, cleaning workers have an annual incidence rate of 10.4 new injury claims per 100 full-time equivalents (FTEs), while the overall service industry sector in Washington has an incidence rate of 5.8 per 100 FTEs and the general industry incidence rate is 6.9 per 100 FTEs.

A review of Washington State workers' compensation data reveals that the largest single category of injury and illness claims among cleaning workers is overexertion, followed by struck by and against, and falls. Exposure to toxics and motor vehicle accidents were also significant categories of interest (Figure 1). Looking at severity of claims, overexertion and falls accounted for the most days of time loss, while many of the struck by and against claims appear to be of low severity, accounting for a relatively small percentage of all time loss days (Figure 2). Overexertion claims, primarily musculoskeletal disorders, were reported as occurring in all phases of cleaning work, while many of the falls were reported as occurring while working on ladders, while sweeping or vacuuming stairs, or while mopping floors.

Each phase of cleaning work has its own unique risk factors for MSDs. Fortunately, a lot of attention has been focused on MSDs in cleaning work lately, and new technologies offer solutions to reduce the risk of injury. What follows is a review of the risk factors present in common cleaning tasks, and a description of some of the solutions that are available. Risk factors and some potential solutions are summarized in Table 1.

Figure 1. This chart shows the percentage of workers' compensation claims for cleaning workers by type of claim. Source: Washington State Fund Workers' Compensation Data, 2003.

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Figure 2. This chart shows the percentage of time loss days by type of workers compensation claim for cleaning workers. Source: Washington State Fund Workers' Compensation Data, 2003.

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Table 1. This table summarizes common risk factors for MSDs in cleaning tasks, along with some potential solutions. (available in full paper)

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