The cleaning industry: hazards and risks

The Cleaning Industry: Hazards and Risks

I initially wrote this as a factsheet while working at the London Hazards Centre a few years back. I have however updated it and made it less technical but have kept most of the information. Last week , I wrote 2 articles providing information on communication in the workplace and to help those who work with chemicals manage chemical hazards. These articles prompted me to revisit this article and publish it for my readers to read and gain something. So Happy Reading!

Like every other industry or sector, the Cleaning Industry has its unique hazards and risks. To manage them, employers need to carry out risk assessments. To have appropriate risk assessments, it helps to know the health risks so you know how you can channel your preventive measures to take care of them.

Here are some cleaning industry hazards and risks:

  • Exposure to dangerous substances, including biological agents than can lead to asthma, allergies, and blood borne infections
  • Occupational dermatitis
  • Slips, trips, and falls
  • Working at height
  • Electrical hazards from work equipment
  • Risks of musculoskeletal disorders
  • Irregular working time and patterns

Exposure to dangerous substances – This can lead to asthma and/or respiratory problems, allergies, and blood borne infections. Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002 (as amended) requires employers to:

  • assess the risks that arise from the use of hazardous substances. This will include any arrangements to deal with accidents, incidents or emergencies, such as those resulting from serious spillages. The assessment must also include the health and safety risks arising from storage, handling or disposal of any of the substances
  • prevent, or if this is not reasonably practicable, control exposure to such substances
  • provide staff with information, instruction and training about the risks, steps and precautions the employer has taken to control these risks, e.g. provision of appropriate rubber gloves or appropriate eye protection

Occupational dermatitis – Work-related contact dermatitis is a skin disease caused by work. It is often called eczema and develops when the skin is damaged. This leads to redness, itching, swelling, blistering, flaking and cracking. The most easily affected parts of the body are the hands, forearms and face. It can be severe enough to keep you off work or result in you having to change jobs. Employers must assess the risks of employees developing contact-related dermatitis. Where there is a risk, you must provide adequate control measures, information, instruction and training.

Slips and trips – Slips and trips is the single most common cause of major injury in UK workplaces. The process of cleaning can create slip and trip hazards – smooth floors left damp and slippery and trailing wires from a vacuum or buffing machine can present a trip hazard. A good management system can help identify problem areas, decide what to do, act on the decisions made and check that the steps have been effective.

Good communication is important to ensure messages are effective and the right action is taken, e.g. between equipment and chemical suppliers to ensure suitability of a product for the type of contaminant and floor.

Effective training and supervision is necessary to ensure cleaning is undertaken to the correct standard. Cleaners need to be informed of their duties and why the cleaning needs to be undertaken in a particular way or at a particular time. Lack of understanding can lead to inappropriate shortcuts.

Electrical hazards from work equipment – Water easily conducts electricity and can cause electrical shock. Hoovering a wet floor, cleaning the computer workstation with a wet piece of cloth without switching off and unplugging all switches and using wet hands to touch electrical equipments are some of the ways cleaners can be at risk from electrical hazards. You need to

  • keep electrical equipment (vacuum cleaners, etc.) away from water, including wet floors.
  • make sure your hands are dry / properly dried before touching electrical equipment.
  • make sure electrical equipment is off as in “Power off” before inserting into a socket.
  • turn off the power of your equipment and sockets and unplug if you smell burning plastic or smoke, see sparks, or feel a shock. Do not use the equipment, put a notice/tag on to prevent others using it and report the matter immediately to your supervisor or employer.

Work at height – Many accidents in the cleaning industry happen while working at height, for example: whilst working on stepladders, stretching/overstretching from ladders whilst window cleaning, standing on benches or chairs to clean high surfaces. Work at Height Regulations 2005 (as amended) place duties on employers, the self-employed, and any person that controls the work of others. You need to:

  • avoid work at height where they can
  • use work equipment or other measures to prevent falls where they cannot avoid working at height; and
  • where they cannot eliminate the risk of a fall, use work equipment or other measures to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall should one occur.

Back pain / Musculoskeletal disorder – The main causes of aches, pains and discomfort in cleaners are:

  • manual handling – lifting, pulling, push/pull, carrying and holding loads. This can include heavy equipment and items such as polishers, vacuums, ladders, furniture and laundry
  • awkward postures – twisting, bending, reaching, stretching etc
  • work organisation – high-work speed, time pressures, poor training

Early detection and reporting of aches and pains is crucial. Employers have a legal duty to manage the risk of musculoskeletal disorders that their workers may be exposed to. Manual handling activities should be avoided, if not possible, employers should assess the risk from the activity and implement effective control measures.

Irregular working time and patterns – Preventing harm to cleaning workers requires changes not only in cleaning companies, but also in our perception of cleaning, and how we obtain cleaning services. Irregular working patterns (such as working nights today, working late shifts the next day and early shift the day after) can affect one’s sleeping pattern and subsequently affect health and mental wellbeing. Changing employment patterns, such as moving from night to daytime cleaning, taking into account value rather than price, and better liaison between the client and the cleaning company can reduce the risk of harm to cleaning workers.

The list goes on…. But these are the most common hazards. Do you wish to add to this list? Then please do so by leaving a comment. Did you find this post helpful? Then please share it.