Heavy Lifting Takes Toll on Hotel Workers

Repetitive motions strain housekeeping staff’s health; union and managers make adjustments

By Jane M. Von Bergen
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Published July 2, 2007


Those thick comforters. The 300-count bed linens triple-sheeted on king-size beds with newer, heavy mattresses. Extra pillows. Robes, slippers, plush bath sheets. Refrigerators and coffee pots in every room.

It’s heaven for hotel guests.

Not so much for the housekeepers.

“The worst part is the bed,” said Terry Smith, a longtime housekeeper who estimates that she lifts the mattress eight times as she makes each bed.

“My hand bothers me a lot,” Smith said. She injured it when she bumped it into a nightstand. “My shoulders hurt from the lifting and the reaching. I’m more frustrated that the job is getting harder.”

In early June, Smith, 37, who has been cleaning hotel rooms for 15 years, joined a panel of scientists and ergonomic experts for the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Exposition, a gathering of 7,000 scientific and health professionals who are responsible for safety on the job.

Joining Smith on the panel was ergonomics professor William Marras from Ohio State University.

About a year before Smith started cleaning hotel rooms, Marras patented a device that, when worn by a worker, measures the twists, turns, exertions and other factors that lead to back and shoulder injuries.

Last year, Marras began to run tests on housekeepers, who earn an average wage of $8.67 an hour. What he found so astounded him that he ran the tests again. “I said: ‘This can’t be right.'”

By his calculations, a hotel housekeeper, who changes sheets and wipes down showers in an air-conditioned, carpeted hotel room, is as much at risk for a back injury as a construction worker, who lifts boards and hauls concrete.

In 2006, the hospitality workers union Unite Here created a database from workers’ health and compensation claim data from 100 union hotels that were part of five major chains.

Pamela Vossenas, an epidemiologist and public-health specialist who works for Unite Here, and ergonomic consultant Paul Orr began to crunch the numbers to create a definitive study. Learning of Marras’ work, they hired him to test housekeepers in Chicago and Philadelphia.

“This is repetitive-motion work, where they have to repeat the motion over and over again, for making the bed, for pushing the vacuum cleaner. Cleaning the bathroom was an excessive strain for reaching high to clean the shower or bending low to scrub the toilet, and then pushing the cart laden down with all the towels and luxuries,” Vossenas said.

In some hotels, the union had managed to negotiate changes to help the workers, chiefly reducing the number of rooms to be cleaned, she said. Mops can replace hands-and-knees scrubbing, and long-handled dusters can reduce reaching.

Smith said she has seen an increase in the amount of her work at the Hyatt. “They add more responsibilities, and they are giving us more to do with the same time.”

When she started three years ago, she had to clean 16 rooms. Now she cleans 18. Double beds had two pillows each. Now there are four to change. She cleans bathroom floors on her knees, and she said she often skips breaks to get the job done.

Hotel general manager John Kroll, who also heads the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association, said that the number of rooms per maid has increased, but that, unless guests request it, sheets are changed only every three days.

“Not changing the sheets is a huge advantage,” he said. An occupational-health nurse counsels workers. The hotel also implemented a morning stretching program to reduce injuries. A mop is available for washing floors.

Marras said he wishes hotel designers would call him. Simple changes such as adding a few inches between the nightstand and the beds could prevent injuries, he said. Fitted sheets might help, and so would lighter comforters.

And, he asked: “Do you really need 12 pillows on a bed?”