Designing out discomfort

5th of May 2014
Designing out discomfort

Like so many industry sectors, cleaning has benefitted from advances in technology and design that have made the work of cleaning professionals easier and safer. More and more products are being developed that not only protect workers from injury and strain, they also help them clean quicker too, boosting productivity and return on investment (ROI).

Torsten Deutzmann, managing director of Unger Europe, explains how ergonomics and human factors are helping to improve the lives of cleaning professionals.

One of the many admirable characteristics that mark out the human spirit is the urge for improvement and progression. We strive to make things better, easier, faster and more convenient, and these commendable aims have seen incredible developments in many areas. From life-saving medical procedures, to the digital revolution that enables us to keep in touch and deal with life and work issues whenever and wherever we are, there are countless examples of innovation and achievement to choose from.

Cleaning is an essential part of everyday life – in fact it could almost count as one of the emergency services to which we all claim a basic right. As discussions continue about spiralling energy costs, politicians talk about the importance of keeping the lights on. The need for power – in a business and domestic sense – is crucial, but the same could be said for cleaning. Imagine a world where no-one could clean anymore? It’s not a comfortable thought – so ensuring the industry progresses in a way that achieves the hygienic results required, and makes the job easier and more cost-effective for operatives and employers, is paramount. And that’s where the science comes in.

The International Ergonomics  Association (IEA) defines ergonomics – or human factors – as: ‘the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of the interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theoretical principles, data and methods to design in order to optimise human well-being and overall system performance’.

Derived from two Greek words: ergon (meaning work), and nomos (meaning laws) ergonomics is sometimes described as the science of work. Ergonomists have differing areas of specialisation and often work in specific economic, service or business sectors. While cognitive ergonomics is concerned with mental processes such as perception, memory and motor responses; and organisational ergonomics looks to optimise structures, policies and processes; when it comes to cleaning, physical ergonomics is the most relevant branch of the science.

Physical ergonomics, as the IEA explains, is concerned with human anatomical, anthropometric, physiological and biomechanical characteristics as they relate to physical activity. Relevant topics within this particular branch of ergonomics include working postures, materials handling, repetitive movements, work-related musculoskeletal disorders, workplace layout, safety and health.

Health and safety

One of the principle ways that the European  Agency for Health and Safety at Work (EU-OSHA) raises awareness of issues related to occupational safety and health is through the Healthy Workplaces campaign. This has been running since 2000, originally known as ‘European Weeks for Health and Safety at Work‘, and each campaign runs for two years, taking a specific subject as its theme.

In 2010-2011 the subject was safe maintenance, and the Federation of European Ergonomics Societies (FEES) added its support by producing a presentation called, ‘Ergonomics – a Key to Safe Maintenance‘. In it, FEES points out ergonomics makes the maintenance and cleaning of buildings easier and safer, and that by following the ergonomics design principles, guidelines and procedures given in European ergonomics standards (EN), working conditions and activities can be optimised to benefit the operative.

Physical problems that cleaning operatives can encounter include:

• Working in tricky locations such as high places or in narrow spaces

• Level of strength/ force needed to complete tasks

•  Poor lighting, thermal conditions and noise issues

• Mechanical, electrical or chemical hazards.

In order to resolve these problems, operatives need tools that work with them, not against them – and equipment that has been designed with the operative, and the task, at front of mind.

Key innovations

New ideas in terms of materials and design are continuing to help shape the cleaning industry of the future. While some view change as unsettling, constant product development is essential for cleaning businesses for a wide range of reasons. It helps companies conform to health and safety regulations, protect the well-being of their workers, and provide a quicker, more efficient and higher standard of results, with increased ROI as the icing on the cake.

The exteriors of buildings need to make a good first impression so it’s perhaps appropriate the façade maintenance sector of the cleaning industry has made some of the most obvious progress. To label this service as mere window cleaning is to do it an injustice – because with more architecturally diverse buildings, signage and solar panels to contend with nowadays, the skills and resources required are light years away from any traditional image that might linger.

The unstable ladders and unwieldy buckets of yesteryear are long gone – with telescopic and modular poles now the tools of choice. These originally came to market to enable operatives to clean high windows from the ground, making the job much safer. However, the materials initially used to manufacture the poles proved to be too heavy and cumbersome, so alternative materials were needed. Now aluminium and carbon fibre help make poles that are light and easy to handle, but still have the strength and rigidity to allow the operative to have ultimate control.

Brush heads and other accessories have also adapted to suit emerging needs. Now available in a wide variety of widths, with different fibre densities and the option of gooseneck fittings to allow a more precise clean, this is another area that has seen significant developments.

The innovations put to good use on the outside have now also come inside. Thanks to an increase in using glass as a building material, atria and conservatory-type features are now much more common in business premises. Operatives can utilise the same tools and techniques in an indoor setting, improving safety for themselves and other people using the building. Ordinarily, this would require specialist cleaning and logistics to arrange – increasing financial outlay because of the high cost of hiring equipment such as scissor lifts, and causing disruption to the working day because areas have to be closed off while cleaning takes place.

The telescopic idea has also infiltrated even more areas of cleaning. Telescopic handles for mops, dust pans and litter pickers enable these tools to be adjusted to fit the height of individual workers. This helps to lessen the risk of back strain, a well-known cause of worker absenteeism.
When it comes to cleaning hard floors in washrooms and kitchens, bucket systems have evolved into complete work stations, now featuring individual compartments to keep clean and dirty water separate and presses that are operated by foot. The addition of robust wheels and adjustable handles also makes them easily manoeuvrable around sites, contributing to the comfort of the operative.

Minimise strain

Handles, whatever piece of equipment they’re attached to, are now designed to minimise hand and wrist strain, using materials that feel and fit better in the hand, offer a good grip even when wet, and some even feel warmer and more comfortable to the touch when working outside in cold weather. Buttons and levers on floor cleaning machinery are placed in more convenient locations, cutting down on the need for bending.

The rush to increase sustainability has seen the rapid emergence of cleaning systems that don’t need to use chemicals, saving both money and helping companies with their ‘green’ agendas. This trend also has added well-being benefits for operatives, reducing the risk of allergic reactions, and helping to decrease the incidence of contact dermatitis.

This more operative-centred way of designing cleaning tools will continue, and the best solutions will always come from allowing cleaning workers to participate and collaborate in the R&D process. In many different European countries much is made of the real, or imagined, gulf between government and the people. Seats of power tend to be centred in urban cities, away from the ‘real people‘, and at regular intervals various sections of society question the ability, and right, of those in government to legislate for them.

The same could be said for cleaning. You can have the most futuristic and stylish design for a new tool on paper, but it is worthless if it doesn’t work effectively for the people that have to use them every day. Listening to cleaning operatives is the best way to develop the products that will take the industry forward as they are the ones with the practical experience. Designers must spend time with them, observing them at work, and enlist their help in trialling new ideas, to ensure the ethos behind ergonomics flourishes and delivers its benefits to our sector.

Cleaning companies need to understand that what‘s good for their employees is good for them too – in terms of reducing worker absenteeism, increasing motivation and loyalty, boosting ROI and creating happy customers. Good design for cleaning tools is not just about aesthetics, it’s about creating equipment that can help operatives to clean fluently and cost-effectively, with minimum effort and strain, resulting in safer, healthier and happier places to work. Ergonomics is an eminently practical science and one that will help to keep raising standards in the industry for years to come.


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