It's tough work for our cleaners

2nd of November 2012
It's tough work for our cleaners
It's tough work for our cleaners

Four million people are currently employed in the European cleaning industry - but they work in tough environments and the rate of sick-leave and work-related injuries is high. Manufacturer of Tork washroom systems SCA reveals the outcome of an observational study into cleaners’ working lives in Germany, France, the Netherlands and Sweden.

Cleaning is a flourishing industry in Europe. The number of cleaning companies on the continent today is five times higher than it was 20 years ago, and employee figures have increased by five per cent each year over the last decade to reach today’s total of around four million.

Not only do cleaners contribute to the physical well-being of Europe, they also add an estimated annual turnover of 60 billion euros to the global economy.

However around 75 per cent of a cleaning company’s total costs are labour costs, which means that the well-being of staff is vital to the industry. And cleaning is a tough industry in which to work.

Cleaning at heights, the use of chemicals, the need to operate machinery and the necessity for carrying heavy or awkward-shaped packages all contribute to making the cleaner’s environment a hazardous one. In fact an estimated 100,000 European cleaning workers stay at home every day due to illness or injury.

Due to the lack of official European statistics it is hard to reach conclusions about the exact levels of work-related health problems and sick leave in today’s European cleaning industry. But some countries have their own published statistics, and we do know that cleaners in Germany take an average of 24–27 paid sick days annually – around 50 per cent more than the average German employee. This figure is also up to five times higher than in professional occupations such as law, science and engineering.

In Sweden, too, cleaners have the highest rate of long-term sick days of any industry. The average Swedish cleaner takes 13 paid days of sick leave each year, with female Swedish cleaners taking twice as many work-related sick days as the average woman employed in that country.
Among the major causes of this higher rate of absenteeism are physical issues such as musculoskeletal disorders of the back, neck, knees and wrists.

As manufacturers of washroom tissue and soap systems we at SCA can do little to change the cleaner’s situation as far as chemical usage, machinery operation and cleaning at heights are concerned. But we do consider the toll taken on the cleaner when lifting heavy packages throughout their facility – particularly since research shows that European cleaning staff handle more than a million packages every week.

We recently carried out an observational study into the working lives of cleaners. This involved visiting 20 companies in four sectors – industry, hospitality, healthcare and the commercial sector. The study was carried out across Germany, France, the Netherlands and Sweden and consisted of two hours’ observation of each cleaner followed by one-hour interviews with the operatives.
We identified five areas in which transporting boxes of products represented a problem for cleaners.


Most cleaning workers felt that carrying packages took up only a minor part of their day, but our observations showed the opposite. The study revealed that a substantial part of a cleaner’s work involved carrying packages of toilet paper, paper towels and other goods – sometimes long distances, up and down stairs and through several doors.

Most facilities had a first and second storage room which meant the cleaners had to lift and carry the packages several times. Many cleaners were observed to have trouble carrying large loads without adopting awkward positions. Since they found it difficult to carry more than one pack at a time they were also forced to make several trips from one storage room to the next. This was both tiring for the cleaner and inefficient for the organisation.


Boxes of products were often taped which meant that staff had to use a tool – often a knife – to open them. The cleaning workers themselves did not consider this to be a problem, though it was observed that providing perforations would make it easier for the operative to open plastic packaging.


In most organisations the storage rooms provided offered limited space in which it was difficult to remove the products from the packaging. In many cases there was also insufficient space between the horizontal shelving to store the product boxes. This meant that cleaners had to empty the boxes and store the hand towel rolls and other products individually on the shelves.

Besides involving more manual work for the cleaner, this meant that the products themselves were unprotected against dirt and contamination in the atmosphere.


Once the product boxes were empty, cleaning workers had to flatten them in order to save storage space and transport them conveniently. Most boxes were difficult to unfold in an easy and convenient manner.


Plastic packages were observed to be either disposed of within the normal waste or recycled as plastic. Plastic packaging waste has a minimal volume and was easy to handle, but the disposal of boxes was observed to be more difficult since the cleaning workers had to carry the empty boxes to the recycling area. In larger facilities the distances involved were often very long.

The study found that the flat, unfolded boxes were difficult to carry despite being empty because it was difficult to get a grip on them. Most cleaning workers were unable to carry more than two unfolded boxes at a time which meant they had to walk back and forth to the recycling area several times.

This study has helped to enlighten us about the cleaning workers’ situation and, as a major supplier to the industry, we have a responsibility to do everything we can to improve the working environment. Insights from the study were brought back to the industrial designers at Tork who have come up with a more convenient packaging solution – Tork Easy Handling packaging – which aims to improve ergonomics and efficiency.

We realise that developing these products is not the complete solution to the challenges that the cleaning industry is facing. However, we at Tork believe that it is an important first step that can inspire other companies to do their share.

If everyone in the cleaning industry – distributors, producers and cleaning companies among others – do what they can to make the cleaner’s life easier, we believe that we together can improve the situation for the cleaning industry as a whole. And if we work on an industry-wide scale, together we can make a real difference to the cleaner’s working life.


Our Partners

  • ISSA Interclean
  • EFCI
  • EU-nited