Who's looking after our cleaners' health?

1st of May 2012
Who's looking after our cleaners' health?

The responsibility for the safety of cleaning workers is an extremely difficult question.  And one of the best things a manager responsible for cleaning staff can do is… go for a walk. This recommendation comes from the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), and according to 3M, a global supplier to the contract cleaning market, it is very sound advice.  What it means is that, when considering the safety of cleaning staff, the best thing either a facilities manager or a cleaning contractor can do is to walk the site, and ideally, do it together.

The reason for this is the insistence by the HSE and other bodies across Europe that the cleaning of premises should be the subject of a specific risk assessment project. There is no generic risk assessment procedure for cleaning that you can just put your company name to, and no simple overall ‘code of practice’.  This would not satisfy the law, so the only thing to do is a specific risk assessment of the site to be cleaned.

The ideal way of doing the risk assessment, says 3M, is to walk the area, ideally in partnership with cleaning contractor and staff representatives. This in itself will open up one of the most important things in the project – it will create a ‘line of communication’ between all the interested parties.

It will also highlight aspects that are the employer company’s responsibility – and there are many of them, which come under ‘the client’s own standard of housekeeping’. This means whether or not the client company has a policy or rules for keeping corridors and walkways clear, for clearing up liquid spills, and so on.

The contractor also has a right to expect a certain standard of behaviour in this, and can also expect a certain standard of facilities to be provided. Convenient storage space is an important one, as is the provision of water and electricity. There is also the question of security, for an unexpected reason – if cleaners have to be trained in the proper use of cleaning equipment and chemicals, it must not be possible for the client’s everyday staff to get access to them.

Importance of  risk assessment

There is no shortage of organisations ready to assert that cleaners’ rights should be protected. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work has published a long document on it (‘The occupational safety and health of cleaning workers’), as has the Unison trades union in the UK (‘Caring for cleaning staff’).

The risk assessment is the first step in satisfying all these interested parties and is usually all about competent people applying common sense.

“This is an interesting problem in that the cleaning industry is one of the biggest employers in Europe,” says Jo Partridge, technical services manager at 3M. “A broad range of health hazards and effects exist from which employees need protection during their working life.

“Whose responsibility is it to protect them? You can draw parallels between the cleaning industry and the construction trade – it is the contractor’s responsibility to protect their employed staff, but it is the client’s responsibility to support the contractor.”

The starting point is the risk assessment which may, arguably, qualify as a legal requirement under the client’s duty of care.

“The client starts the risk assessment and must communicate and engage in the process with all parties” says Jo Partridge. “They cannot allow an employee of the contractor on-site without satisfying themselves that an appropriate risk assessment is in place. The risk assessment is where it all starts.

“Some clients panic at this, and some of them over compensate by doing an assessment of every substance data sheet, but it doesn’t have to be over complicated. This is an information gathering exercise, and helpful guidelines are available.”

Even so, there are very helpful tips, says 3M. For example, it should cover an employee’s pre-employment history. Depending on what previous work they have been doing, they may well come on-site with an existing condition. Simple benchmarking questionnaires and health checks exist.

Health and safety organisations across Europe have highlighted several safety hazards faced by cleaning staff. Some are obvious, such as ‘installed plant and equipment’, and ‘working at height’. Much can be overcome by simple instructions and training, with a referral back to the risk assessment which should remain current and updated.

There can be a number of new hazards, which is why any risk assessment must have a ‘review cycle’ including emergency reviews. New hazards can be introduced by contractors needing to change materials or practices. Any possible changes to risks should be discussed first.

In the UK, the Unison trades union has highlighted several examples of hazards to cleaners. In one case a cleaning contractor’s staff would clear blocked toilets, although it was not strictly their job, and they had not been trained for it, or given the correct equipment. The result was a complaint of stomach problems caused to a cleaner.

Mixing of substances

Contractors buying their cleaning materials in bulk and decanting them can cause issues. The container they decant into has to be correct – not just any old bottle. Labels of certain bottles can get damaged, blurred, or come off completely, losing vital health and safety information.

Another challenging risk management issue is the mixing of substances such as bleach as well as scale remover. There have been examples where these two types of substances have been mixed and have released noxious chemicals that, in the extreme, have led to floors and buildings being evacuated.

The risk assessment must flag circumstances where the likelihood of mixing exists and highlight appropriate precautions.

An interesting problem highlighted by a trades union was of a contract cleaner whom the client company supplied with protective clothing. She wore the gloves and a protective overall but found that there was not enough time to wash and dry the overall before the next day’s shift, and asked for a spare. The management refused.

Again, there is more to this that needs to be understood. “Personal protective equipment must be seen as a last resort,” says 3M’s Jo Partridge. “This means that your risk assessment has to demonstrate that you have made every effort to avoid the need for protective equipment by considering other control measures first. But when you have shown there is no other way, then the need for protective equipment can be accepted as an appropriate control measure if selected and used well.

“However, it has to be the right kind of equipment. If a cleaner is expected to handle substances, then you have to provide the right kind of glove, and instruct them on the maintenance and/or disposal of that glove. Gloves may retain sweat, and sweat can help a chemical permeate – so a poor glove may be worse than no glove at all. Making them wear one pair of gloves for too long or the wrong type of glove could be disastrous for the skin.”

Ear protection is surprisingly important in cleaning. Some safety problems, about which there have been massive campaigns, eg, HSE’s Shattered Lives around the dangers of slips and trips, are obvious. Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) is not so obvious and is a latent health effect.  Again, employers can try to protect themselves at the risk assessment stage by ensuring baseline-hearing assessments are conducted and noise controls are implemented for noisy machinery.

Noise levels can be assessed simply. If you have to shout to hear yourself over two metres, it is likely that a noise risk exists.

Simple noise indicators exist which fix to a worker’s work collar/label. Some are available which flash above 85 dBA, effectively meaning ‘put your ear protectors on’. Meters also exist which measure the average noise experienced by an individual worker over an entire shift. This allows the assessment of whether noise controls such as hearing protection are required.

There are additional hazards that can also develop among some cleaning staff. Occupational asthma can occur instantly or over a longer period of time. It can be caused by the inhalation of certain substances that trigger an asthmatic response. There is growing evidence of it in the cleaning industry, and once you’ve triggered this response, you’ve got it for life. The accidental inhalation of chlorine and ammonia can bring on the symptoms. Again the risk assessment should highlight substances, their use and risk characteristics, their harmful effects and appropriate controls.

Changing situations

For all the precautions that have to be taken, probably the wisest plan is for the regular review between client, contractor and staff – because situations can change.  Managers have to have good communication loops for when processes, practices and products change.

Jo Partridge continues: “If a daytime worker, eg, a builder, has a problem they are unsure of, they can turn to their foreman, who is usually available and accessible, and ask: can I do this? A night shift cleaner working alone relies on their training, and with limited support staff around during night shifts to ask questions, there is a chance that if unsure they may go ahead without checking. Behavioural safety is an interesting field, knowing what to do and what not to do instinctively is definitely showing good returns for companies who adopt it.

“There are health and safety issues in the cleaning industry. Some are supported by well documented research, whilst some are reasonably new. Therefore for one of Europe’s largest employment sectors, relying on robust risk assessments, good communication and regular reviews is key”.


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