Ergonomics means more than height-adjustable mops
Cleaners are exposed to health risks daily. Back pain and tendonitis are just two of the consequences of many years of incorrectly performed movements. A report on how the economy could save billions of dollars in costs through ergonomic working conditions, what the cat can teach us as an ergonomics master, and how we can meaningfully transfer the laws of kinaesthetic from the care sector to cleaning.
The human body is made up of over 200 bones, more than 700 muscles, and about 1,100 ligaments and tendons. For our whole life, these components of the body should support us and enable an active life. For this to happen, however, we must take care of our bodies. Due to the ever-increasing pressure of time and the neglect of health-preserving working conditions, especially in the cleaning sector, musculoskeletal health problems are increasing. The most common complaints are osteoarthritis, back pain and shoulder-arm syndrome. Incorrect lifting, ignorance about key device characteristics or unnatural joint positions are just a few of the causes. Many employers have a blind spot when it comes to promoting healthy working methods. As a result, these conditions can increase absenteeism among employees, which could be reduced with just a few preventative measures and an ergonomic work design. But what is ergonomics all about?
Adaptation of working conditions to humans
The term ergonomics is composed of the Greek words “ergon” (work) and “nomos” (law). The focus is on the principle of adapting working conditions to people – and not the other way around. The aim is to work towards a conscious execution of movements, an ergonomic design of tools and a correct distribution of effort on the individual muscles. The over 700 muscles in the human body are controlled by the brain via the nerve pathways. Every human being is, so to speak, the “boss” of 700 “employees”. Most cleaners only work with a small number of their “employees”. To give an example: When cleaning a table surface only the muscles of the shoulder, the arm and the hand are used. The rest of the body remains inactive, and generally in a tense position. This causes shoulders and arms to tire relatively quickly. Tired muscles, bones, tendons and joints are heavily loaded. This leads to a variety of inflammations. Proper coordination of muscle and movement can prevent fatigue, arthrosis, and wear. But how can you achieve this? It is important to know that the thigh muscles are the strongest muscles in the body. If you use the strength from your thigh muscles, other body parts such as the arms and shoulders are relieved, thus delaying fatigue. Consider the example of the cat: When it is playing with a piece of string, it will stand on its hind legs. As it grabs the string with its paws, the hind legs serve as an anchor and a source of power. Following this example, humans should increasingly find their way back to their natural movement patterns.
Continuous training instead of one-off instruction
Whether ergonomic training courses are held externally with a training provider or as individual training on-site does not have an effect on long-term behavioural change. But continuous training does. Sergio Lottenbach leads courses in ergonomic cleaning at Wetrok AG. He has conducted a study on the long-term effects of ergonomics training with two test groups. With the first group, he trained ergonomic cleaning for two hours twice a month for one year. The second group attended a one-time four-hour basic training followed by two three-hour advanced courses within one year. The result: The reduction of work-related injuries due to musculoskeletal disorders in the first, regularly sensitised group was an impressive 50%, while the second group of sporadic exercisers only saw a reduction of 12%. Most ergonomics training takes place only once. However, a long-term change in behaviour can only be achieved through regular training and refresher exercises. Lottenbach believes that it is particularly important that there should not be a long time delay between the first and second training session.
A scientific study from University College London supports his statement. Researchers studied how long it takes for a person to change a habit. The findings: It took more than two months for the majority of people, and for some, even half a year, until the habit or newly learned behaviour was internalised.
Kinaesthetic considerations from care work transferred to cleaning practice
Ergonomics addresses the interaction between people and objects. But it excludes two aspects: self-reflection and the inclusion of the environment. In order to be able to reduce a load, one must question oneself and one’s environment and observe both closely. In this way one discovers the source of the effort. This is where kinaesthetic comes into play. Kinaesthetic is the theory of the sensation of motion and can be described as a little sister of ergonomics. To understand the terms, let’s take the example of a trolley: Such a cart is an ergonomic device because it relieves cleaning staff. The fact that the cleaning staff relies on the cart as a support tool describes the kinaesthetic. The use of the trolley arises from the need to reduce effort and to include aids in the environment in the best way possible. In nursing, kinaesthetic, holistic considerations already play a major role. Instructor Sergio Lottenbach tries to transfer kinaesthetic from the nursing sector to the cleaning industry by enriching the training content of the ergonomics courses with the inclusion of kinaesthetic considerations. “The starting point of kinaesthetic considerations is that every movement requires effort. It is important to include the interplay of the components of human movement in the everyday work of cleaners,” says Lottenbach. According to an article published by the nursing pedagogue Franz Koch online, kinaesthetic never focuses on individual units, but always keeps an eye on the entire networked system. This system consists of six surrounding areas: Interaction, anatomy, movement, effort, function and environment. At the heart of the system are the activities of the human. The concept system serves as a tool with which every movement can be observed, understood and adapted. The core questions of kinaesthetic are: How much effort do I need to make a movement, how can I simplify the exercise, how do I reduce the effort, and what tools can assist me? In short, according to kinaesthetic principles it is okay to be tired at the end of a working day. It would not be okay to feel so exhausted that you are unable to pursue your hobbies and leisure activities.
Back problems cost the Swiss economy several billion francs per year
Healthy and efficient employees are an important factor in productivity. Especially in the service sector, employees are even a strategic tool for success in some companies. It is therefore surprising that there is no longer any investment in the health of employees. The findings of a study commissioned by the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) show that there is a need for action: Back pain and other disorders of the musculoskeletal system cost the Swiss economy over four billion francs a year. Specifically, these costs are caused by diminished productivity or absenteeism. According to the study, the solution is healthier working conditions: Ergonomic work design would eliminate almost all absenteeism and a large proportion of productivity losses due to work-related musculoskeletal disorders. The savings potential: around three billion francs. This makes it clear: Health problems due to diseases of the musculoskeletal system are not only a problem for those affected, they are also relevant for workplaces and the economy.
Modern cleaning devices prevent incorrectly executed movements
In addition to ergonomic movement design, the alignment of working conditions with humans is a second major concern of ergonomics. The choice of cleaning equipment and machines plays a major role here. When cleaning floors with mops, for example, care should be taken to ensure that the cleaning device has a telescopic handle. This means that the cleaning worker can adjust the device to their individual body size. There is a simple rule for optimum handle length: the grip should always be at chin height. To use as little force as possible, low-friction mops are ideal. If wet cleaning is implemented using a scrubber-drier, a stepless adjustable drawbar is recommended. The way a room is cleaned can also minimise or even eliminate effort. For example, switching from cleaning with bucket and cloth to cleaning with a foam bottle and microfibre cloth can massively reduce physical strain. A foam bottle is not only light and takes up little space on the cleaning cart, it also eliminates the wringing of cloths or the carrying of heavy water buckets. But it is important to remember: Ergonomically optimised devices are only ideally useful if they are expertly operated and workers are familiar with the ergonomic special functions. Therefore, it is advisable to instruct the staff on the function of every new purchase of cleaning tools.
Health-friendly working practices are not incompatible with efficiency
Ergonomics is an important issue in the cleaning of buildings – especially as around 80-90% of the total cleaning costs are accounted for by personnel costs. Companies often do not know where to start improving. The first step should be to analyse the current situation (see checklist). Often it becomes clear where the greatest need for action is. Companies investing in ergonomic working conditions will benefit in the long run. Because: Health-friendly working leads to a targeted use of force, rapid progress, joint-friendly work and not least to motivated, loyal employees. Thus, health-friendly work is not inconsistent with efficient work. We cannot change the fact that cleaners are subjected to a lot of physical stress, but we can help them to counteract this.
What is ergonomics?
Ergonomics is a scientific discipline that deals with understanding the interactions between humans and machines. At its core, ergonomics means adapting working conditions to the abilities and characteristics of working people. The aim is to improve the well-being of humans, and thus the overall system performance, by minimising the burden on health.
Excursus relaxation exercises
During a several-hour cleaning session, relaxation exercises help to loosen stressed body parts. Why this is so important can be explained using the structure of a tree: If a tree has healthy roots, the branches are powerful and strong. This can be related to the human body: If the pelvic and shoulder girdles (roots) are relaxed, this stability is transferred to the extremities such as arms, legs or the head (branches). In this video link you will find three simple relaxation exercises to loosen your shoulders, arms and back: Video
Checklist for analysing the current situation
“What is your company’s situation with regard to ergonomics?”
1. Do employees know the term “ergonomics” and are they informed about health-friendly work?
2. What are the ergonomic advantages of the existing cleaning tools such as machines, equipment or accessories? Are they e.g. adjustable to the individual body size?
3. Do employees know about these benefits and do they use the aids correctly?
4. Is heavy lifting largely avoided and are tools such as transport or cleaning carts used for this?
5. Do employees dedicate their strength to performing movements with their strongest muscles, the thigh muscles? (for example, when wiping tables or cleaning floors with a mop)
6. Do employees feel completely exhausted and impaired after completing their work, or do they still have the energy to pursue leisure activities?
7. Are employees familiar with the physical laws (for example, the law of leverage, the law of the centre of gravity)?
8. Is there a high level of sick leave in the company? If so, what is the main cause?
9. Are leaflets or video instructions on ergonomic work design available?
10. Have the employees received extensive training regarding ergonomics?