Caution, this floor is wet…
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There is more to the subject of cleaning floors than the casual observer might imagine, and the hazards extend further than even the buildings manager may realise – certainly, most people would think of the possible dangers presented to staff and visitors who will be walking on wet floors. But the responsibility goes farther than that, because buildings managers and facilities managers also have a responsibility for the safety of the workers who do their cleaning, and experience tells the safety associations that cleaning staff can not always be relied upon to do things the safest way.
Indeed, some cleaning staff do the very strangest things. Which is why the buildings manager has to construct their cleaning regime, and purchasing policies, very carefully indeed.
Last year there were four fatalities and 10,000 injuries in the British workplace from slips and trips. There is no evidence to support it, but the entire cleaning industry shares the uncomfortable suspicion that a significant number of these injuries are down to cleaning practice, and some official bodies have been quite outspoken on the possibility.
The European Agency for Health and Safety at Work says that cleaning is the second most important preventative measure against trips, second only to such physical solutions as levelling out floor surfaces. The British Health and Safety Executive has said, clearly: ‘floor cleaning is significant in causing slip and trip accidents, both to cleaners and the public’.
That is a very significant, and quite chilling phrase. It does not skip round the issue and say that cleaning practices ‘contribute’ to accidents – it says floor cleaning ‘causes’ accidents.
Clearly, responsibility for an accident is a problem, and that too is bigger than many managers may think.
So are the penalties - when an environmental health officer from South Derbyshire District Council in the UK successfully prosecuted a restaurant proprietor for inadequate cleaning and clearing which caused a trip-and-slip hazard, the fine was four times bigger than the one the same judge handed down to the same restaurateur for a food hygiene offence!
Any buildings manager or facilities manager will be keenly aware of the areas in which the public or visitors to his organisation may walk, and will guard against as many dangers as he can. But he has a further problem to consider. If the cleaning is being done by direct labour, or if it was arranged that cleaners use equipment supplied by the employing manager, then the buildings manager has a responsibility to protect the cleaning staff as well. At its most basic, this means providing cleaners with the right equipment, and that turns out to be a complex matter.
Typically – any old mop from the hardware store will not do.
At a European Agency for Health and Safety at Work conference two years ago, a noted speaker from Finland pointed out that cleaning is the most common light manual occupation carried out around the world, and yet many items of equipment made available to them do not physically protect their interests.
Many cleaning tasks involve heavy manual work and are physically demanding, pointed out the speaker. Mopping is one of the most used cleaning methods, and the buying of mops is not seen as a serious subject for well-thought investment. However, mopping has actually been the subject of an ergonomics study which proved that muscular load differs with the direction of mopping. Cleaners have often been advised that the best practice is to mop forward – but it turns out that a combination of forward, back, and sideways protects the cleaner’s muscles best. It follows that the design and weight of the mop provided to the cleaner has a direct effect on not just their efficiency, but their health.
Is this far-fetched? Not entirely, says Andrew Large, chief executive of the Cleaning and Support Services Association. “Safety has to cover two sets of people – the public and the cleaning staff. Everybody thinks about the public, but there is a responsibility to the cleaners as well. For your cleaning staff, there are musculo-skeletal problems. What do they do if the hoover wand is too long or too short? What if the cleaner doesn’t have a cart for the water and has to carry it?
“Then there are ‘incident’ injuries – they drop the bucket. Did you think to provide a practical, manageable bucket?” This is, he says, all perfectly serious. Bizarre cleaning accidents, which could have been easily avoided, are more common than anyone might think.
“The ‘falling from height’ hazard is a noticeable one among office cleaners. You might think this would only apply to window cleaners, but it doesn’t – it applies to everyday office cleaners standing on chairs or desks to dust the light fittings. You wouldn’t believe the number of desks which collapse because cleaners are standing on them!
“And the responsibility for that turns into a very large discussion, because liability rests with the employer, which may be your cleaning contractor, but is a big problem if you’re using direct labour.
“However, more and more case law is beginning to build on the responsibility of the individual, the man who stood on the desk. If the employer or contractor can show that they did the right things in terms of training, equipment, and reasonable working conditions, which can include considerations such as not forcing them to rush to get more jobs done, then it is reasonable to argue that the responsibility lies with the man who stood on the desk.
“Case law suggests that when a cleaning employee hurts themselves by doing something stupid, that’s their own problem – but these are still shark-infested waters.”
And so the safest thing to do, says the CSSA, is not to under-estimate the problem, nor to assume that your cleaners (or anyone else walking around an area being cleaned) is going to do the sensible thing. Make a risk-assessment, and remember that you cannot possibly make it too detailed.
The Health and Safety Executive are in agreement with this, and say that even when the manager thinks he has covered every possibility, danger can still crop up. The HSE tells a story of an incident witnessed (and measured) by their own staff:
A customer in a fast-food café spilled a little coffee between the counter area and her table. The spillage was small, perhaps 2cm across. Quite creditably, the company had issued instructions to staff on slip hazards, and so almost immediately a member of staff came to deal with the problem.They mopped up the spillage, and also the surrounding area, squeezed out the mop and went over the whole area again, now leaving an area of approximately two square metres 'mop dry'.
The HSE researchers spotted the new hazard, and timed how long it took this area to dry completely – they observed that the two metres of mopped floor, now almost indistinguishable in appearance from the rest of the floor, took approximately 7 minutes to dry, and was ‘extremely slippery’ during that time.
“Research has shown that many slips are caused by a sudden change in floor surface characteristics,” says the HSE. “In this case, for seven minutes, it would be difficult for customers and staff to realise they were walking from a safe to an unsafe surface.
“Although the manager of the premises had a good awareness of slips and trips risks, his staff had in fact increased the risk because of the company’s specified method of cleaning. Drying the 2cm area with a paper towel would have been far better!”
In a similar case, a corporate employer, which had attempted to issue safety guidelines on the same subject, also got into trouble with the environmental health authorities.
An employee slipped and fell, and the health inspector investigating the accident enquired about the company’s risk assessment and safety policies – and yes indeed, they did have a policy. The employee had slipped on an area of flooring that had been mopped but not dried properly, and indeed the company's 'General Procedures and Safety Precautions' had clearly stated 'Do not walk on wet or newly polished floors'.
However, because of security reasons, cleaning staff were not allowed on the premises in the evenings or at night, so ‘wet cleaning’ work took place during working hours when staff were always moving around their desks. The health inspector guided the company to other methods of cleaning floors, gave advice on materials with which staff themselves could clear up any spills, and advised on a vastly increased usage of matting systems.
The HSE does have guidelines on how to undertake floor-cleaning risk assessments, and has even devised a Slip Potential Model, which is said to be able to help the building manager predict, through risk assessment, where slips may happen.
Its guidance includes such blindingly obvious, but easy-to-forget, matters as remembering to always walk the area where cleaning staff will be working, to take notes of likely hazards; to think of the needs of those who walk in the area, and whether they are likely to be elderly, or even partially sighted, in which case the provision of a warning sign might not be noticed. (Europe’s workforce is ageing, and is using more temporary and part-time workers – each bring more potential safety hazards.)
The HSE guidance reminds managers to consider the location of the facilities required by cleaners, and another relevant HSE story concerns the railway station where a spill of water from the fresh flower stall was reported to the site cleaner, who arrived immediately, bearing a bucket of water and mop which was the specified equipment. However, his source of cleaning water was some way distant. So he filled the bucket generously, which made it spill through his journey across the concourse towards the incident. As a result, what had originally been a spill a couple of centimeters wide turned into a major public slip hazard, thirty metres wide!
It is time for a scientific approach to floor hazards, says Andrew Large at the CSSA, and so this year he is putting a test project into place. A major research survey will attempt to identify the best cleaning techniques for not leaving a wet floor.
“For members of the public, your visitors and your staff, trips and slips are still a key issue,” he says. “And a key problem remains the major subject of wet, smooth floors. So we have a set of sites and methods to be monitored, and we expect to put out a report on the subject by the early summer.”
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