Gill O’Donnell provides practical advice on looking after these key staff and argues that a proactive approach to health and safety is needed to ensure that they are protected from injury.

WHETHER YOU KNOW them as the site domestic manager, the ‘janny’ or the caretaker they are undoubtedly a key member of the team which keeps your school running efficiently. Along with their trusty team of cleaners they are at the forefront of the ongoing battle to keep your premises presentable and ensure that all visitors to the site encounter that all-important positive first impression. Unfortunately, this valuable team is also the group of workers most likely to suffer from injury in the workplace and as such should receive particular attention when you are reviewing your health and safety policy. Over 3,000 accidents to cleaners are reported annually to the Health and Safety Executive, with injuries ranging from sprains and strains through to broken bones and repetitive strain injuries.

Why are they at risk?

The nature of caretaking and cleaning work is extremely demanding, labour intensive and frequently carried out under severe time constraints. Many of the tasks involve heavy manual work, putting strain on the heart, muscles and other tissues. Often, tasks are carried out in situations which require awkward postures, which can lead to longterm problems. As well as using heavy equipment, such as cleaning machines, there are a number of physicallydemanding tasks, (eg moving furniture and equipment, mopping). The school itself is generally designed with a number of other priorities in mind and consequently there may also be problems with regard to issues such as access to areas, the siting of storage cupboards and waste disposal areas, location of water taps and the use of floor/surface materials which can create specific cleaning problems.

How can you tell if there is a problem?

A careful observation tour when caretaking activities or cleaning are taking place should give you some indication as to whether or not all is well.

  • Pay particular attention to whether or not staff are wearing bandages or supports of any kind when working as this would suggest that they are suffering from strains or sprains or are expecting certain tasks to cause pain to vulnerable areas. It also worth looking to see if they have made any personal adaptations to equipment, as this again suggests a degree of discomfort when performing certain tasks and attempts to overcome the problem.
  • The next area to check is the paperwork. Look for any increases in sickness absence, signs of rapid turnover of staff, reports of near misses or accidents and, in larger teams, reports of any problems from union or safety reps.
  • The third area to explore is general chatter – try to keep yourself aware what people are saying informally, as this will reveal any key concerns (eg low motivation or dissatisfaction amongst the team and if there are any particular jobs which people try to avoid). Careful, discreet monitoring of these issues will provide a helpful picture of what is taking place in this area, which you can then use to inform your decisions.

Areas which are likely to give rise to problems

The key areas which are most likely to give rise to health and safety problems are as follows:

  • Musculoskeletal issues The most common form of work-related disorder, these injuries are responsible for an estimated 12m working days lost each year in Great Britain. The term refers to a variety of strain, sprain and overuse problems affecting muscles, joints and nerves and includes problems such as backache, upper limb disorders, swellings in the hands and wrists and tenosynovitis. These are often caused or exacerbated by work activities. In cleaning they can arise from heavy and monotonous work, repetitive movements, unsuitable equipment, exposure to vibration and extreme or constrained postures. Again, it is important to ensure that as part of your health and safety review there is observation of a full range of tasks, bearing these physical difficulties in mind when revising risk assessments.
  • Manual handling problems In essence manual handling refers to lifting or lowering loads from the floor or at any height, reaching up to get a load, pulling or pushing a load, twisting it around etc. It may be done only occasionally or it may be repetitive. In my earlier article on manual handling (‘Get a grip’, SFM issue 63, April 2005), I explained the importance of analysing manual handling operations in terms of the task, the load, the working environment and the individual capability.

This rule applies especially to analysis of the work of the cleaning team, who are likely to be manoeuvring heavy equipment on a regular basis, such as moving desks/cupboards to clean beneath/behind them, transporting machines around the school etc. The latter is a common problem in schools on split levels, where it is often necessary to transport equipment from one end of the building to another. This often leads to a situation where heavy polishing/cleaning machines are man-handled up flights of stairs in order to save time.

Lack of equipment or poor equipment maintenance can also lead to machines being shared and so transported between sites in the school, while time pressure can lead to unsafe practices occurring simply to get a job completed before the next activity takes place in the venue – a problem exacerbated by the increase in extended day activities.

Awkward postures
Many of the tasks which caretakers and cleaners carry out on a regular basis require the person to adopt awkward or twisted postures (eg climbing on ladders, buffing, wiping, vacuuming, stretching to reach behind a bank of computers). It is important to remember that prolonged static or repetitive postures can lead to serious musculoskeletal disorders. The most common causes of this kind of problem are situations which require bending, twisting, stretching and reaching or crouching. Repetitive movements, rapid hand movements and forceful exertions all increase the likelihood of problems occurring, while lack of time to work safely means that short cuts are more likely to be taken, thus increasing the risk of injury.

Use of vibrating equipment
Equipment that is poorly designed or maintained can vibrate too much, leading to problems such as vibration white finger, hand-arm vibration syndrome, tingling and numbness. Inadequate training can also lead to inappropriate use of machinery and result in excessive vibration.

Work organisation
This is a key area when considering risk assessment as sensible planning can help to eliminate the need to adopt high risk actions. Principal causes of problems are issues such as: high work speed and intensity, lack of control over work/breaks, little training, little appreciation of the work done, fear of making errors, high workload and time pressures and high turnover of staff and absenteeism which create impossibleworkloads.

What to do if there is a problem

It is vitally important that the caretaker and cleaning staff feel that they can expect support if they are experiencing a problem. Musculoskeletal disorders can be extremely painful and to carry on working at the same kind of task after the onset of a problem can not only delay recovery but also cause permanent damage. It is, therefore, important that medical help is sought at the earliest opportunity. However, despite the onset of initial symptoms such as tingling, swelling and soreness, the sufferer often continues to work and may adopt new ways of doing the task or adapt equipment to avoid use of the injured area. This can lead to putting strain on other muscles and joints, causing referred pain. Prompt action can avoid this kind of situation and so it is best for everyone if issues can be raised openly. Failure to do so can lead to situations where staff feel they can no longer continue in their job, thus causing long-term absence, increased staff turnover or, in some cases, claims for compensation.

  • Managing the issues Effective risk assessment focusing on the areas outlined above is essential but this should also be combined with staff involvement and training. As part of the risk assessment process it is important to review your observations and look for ways to reduce the residual risk inherent in the tasks. The areas to consider should include changes to:
  • The equipment used
  • Within the area of equipment it is important to ensure that all equipment provided is maintained regularly and that sufficient equipment is always available to ensure safe working practices. Remember also to consider issues relating to the individuals in the workforce, such as height – changes of staff can require changes of equipment. A mop suitable for use by a 5ft slightly built female is likely to be unsuitable for a 6ft male and excessive bending could cause shoulder and back pain.
  • The workplace
    Changes to the workplace may also be required as a result of changes in personnel: in the example above the female cleaner would have far more difficulty lifting and disposing of the contents of large water container down a waist height sink than the male. It is, therefore, important to consider this issue when examining existing premises (or designing new ones!). A provision of a sluice sink at knee height would be far more suitable for both workers.
  • The work organisation programme
    Changes to work patterns are perhaps the easiest to instigate but are often overlooked. Task rotation is one of the simplest ways to ensure that staff are not continually repeating tasks which may be exacerbating injuries (eg buffing in one area followed by mopping in another – both tasks which involve use of the same muscles). Similarly, sharing tasks and working in pairs or teams can increase variation in workload and reduce manual handling problems. However, it is important that staff are consulted as much as possible about changes to their work patterns so that it is not seen as a threatening issue which could lead to discontent and lowering of morale.
  • Training procedures
    Training is a key issue to consider as part of the review. Before they begin work each caretaker/cleaner should undergo an induction training programme to ensure that they are aware of their responsibilities as well as the safest way to carry out their work – if a person is not aware of the risks then they cannot be expected to know how or why they should work safely. Training, however, should be an ongoing process with general refresher training available to all staff as well as specific training on particular machines and for manual handling. The refresher courses should focus on the twin issues of good posture and techniques. Records of training should be kept for future reference. While learning from other more experienced workers is a useful way of dealing with induction, it does also allow the new worker to learn bad habits and so it is important to ensure that training is coupled with supervision and monitoring. These courses also provide an ideal opportunity to encourage staff input on health and safety issues, and the completion of a questionnaire (see example below) before the course can help identify any areas which might need addressing in order to reduce risks by introducing preventative measures and allowing you as an employer to successfully fulfil your legal duty of care towards your cleaning staff.

Gill O’Donnell is an educational consultant specialising in health and safety issues in schools.

Cleaning staff health survey

The aim of this questionnaire is to investigate the health of cleaners at…………………………………………………… to assist with identifying health and safety issues. The information provided is confidential and the questionnaire may be completed anonymously.

Sex Age Job location Hours worked per week

Length of time in post

  1. Have you had any pains, aches or discomfort during the last year? YES/NO
  2. Have you had any pains, aches or discomfort during the last week? YES/NO
  3. Please tick the box to show where you have had pains, aches or discomfort
  4. Have you ever needed to see a doctor for these aches and pains? YES/NO
  5. Have you ever needed to take time off from work because of these aches and pains? YES/NO
  6. Do you think that these aches and pains are related to any of the things which you do at work? YES/NO
  7. Do any of the things which you do at work make these aches and pains worse? Give details …………………………………………………………………………..

Pain in the last 12 months/ Pain in the last 7 days

Ankles and feet Knees Thighs/hips Lower back Upper back Neck Left wrist/hand Right wrist/hand Left elbow Right elbow Left shoulder

Right shoulder