Mariana Wong is sick of vacations -- not her own holidays, but those taken by guests staying at the San Francisco Hilton. New Year's Eve, Christmas, summertime, and special events inevitably mean extra scrubbing for her and her fellow hotel cleaners. The holidays, she says, put hotel guests in feisty spirits: They decorate their rooms with tinsel, confetti, and balloons, and gorge on gourmet food that often ends up smeared into linens and carpeting. Even the kids contribute good cheer by drawing on the walls with brightly colored crayons. Worse still are the gushing scrawls that romantic souls pen to each other in lipstick on the mirrors. "The guests really like to do it," she says. "There are a lot of 'I love yous' on Valentine's Day. It's really hard to clean off."
All this extra work can translate into injuries, especially when weary room attendants push too hard to finish their work within the allotted time. Small wonder that overexertion accounts for a disproportionate number of injuries among hotel maids and cleaners, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2006, the bureau reported that work-related injuries and illnesses averaged 5.8 for every 100 full-time hotel workers, compared to 4.4 for workers in private industry as a whole.
Hotel owners should be aware that unreasonable time pressure could backfire in time taken off due to worker illness, says Wong, who worked at the Hilton for four years before taking a leave of absence. In past years, Wong was responsible for cleaning 15 rooms a day, even though housekeepers estimate they need at least 45 minutes per room to vacuum, change the linens, empty the trash, wash the bathrooms, and tidy up after the guests. "All the time we were in a rush; that's why it's easy for us to hurt our bodies," Wong says, recalling that she once seriously injured her elbow after falling against a wall while rushing to make a bed. Wong tried to avoid straining herself, especially during the holidays. When rooms were expected to be particularly dirty, she requested a partner to help her or asked for a couple of rooms to be dropped from her schedule. In January 2000, the Hilton reduced each hotel maid's daily workload to 14 rooms, a small change that Wong says greatly improved her workday.
"Rush rooms" -- or rooms that need to be cleaned on the spot for incoming guests -- are one of the biggest potential hazards for workers, says Charley Goetchius, director of the hotel division of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union in San Francisco. The union advocates a more reasonable cleaning schedule for hotel cleaners.
"There's no way you can clean at that pace without hurting yourself," Goetchius says. Hotel managers could ease the load for housekeepers racing to clean the room by offering the impatient guests a snack or two while they're waiting, he says.
Feather beds designed to pamper guests can also cause more work for the staff. Deep, luxurious mattresses may be the ultimate in guest comfort, but they're cumbersome for hotel cleaners who have to change the linens on them, Goetchius says. By popular demand, many hotel rooms that used to house one single king bed now have two double beds -- a change that has essentially doubled the workload for a typical hotel cleaner, whose backs and shoulders are bearing the brunt.
Watch your back
Hotel cleaners would do well to heed proper lifting techniques taught in job-training classes, Goetchius says. Oddly enough, according to a study on the health and working conditions of San Francisco hotel room attendants, younger hotel cleaners suffered higher rates of both back and shoulder injuries than did the older set. That's because the longer a room cleaner is on the job, the more back-support tips he or she learns, Goetchius says.
Wong agrees. "At the beginning, I had problems because I was not used to this job," she says, recalling the severe back pain that plagued her during her first year on the job. During her first 12 months, her back ached so badly that she had to wear a back belt full time. "But by the end of the first year, I got used to [the work] and gave up the belt," she says.
However, leg and foot problems tend to increase with a hotel cleaner's age, according to the same study. "It's basic wear and tear," Goetchius says. Taking frequent breaks to rest the legs would certainly help, he says, although that's not always realistic given the current time constraints imposed on hotel workers.
Slips, trips, and falls are a common hazard for room cleaners, especially when they are hurrying to navigate slippery bathroom floors or running an obstacle course through open luggage, rollaway beds, or pullout sofas, Goetchius says. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, falls are in the top four of workplace hazards for hotel workers. Burns from hot equipment, sprained muscles, and hurt backs are other common injuries.
The hotel union, UNITE-HERE, conducted a major study in 2006 that looked at injuries throughout the industry and found that housekeepers recorded rates that were 86 percent higher than other workers. The study examined employer records of more than 40,000 workers at 60 hotels across the country and showed that hotel work is becoming increasingly dangerous.
Room cleaners, particularly women, face an additional hazard: drunk or threatening guests. Housekeepers have to watch out for their physical safety when cleaning a room or walking through the quiet hallways alone. Wong says she is always vigilant, keeping an eye out for suspicious behavior as she's cleaning. Once, encountering an incoherent guest muttering angrily, she simply left the room. When working late at night, she sometimes requests a security escort or cleaning partner. "If we meet a troubled guy, we call someone to deal with him," she says.
Tips for working safely
- Wear rubber-soled shoes and move slowly. This will help prevent falls and spills on slippery floors.
- If you have to kneel on hard floors, use knee pads to relieve stress on the joints. Wong says she finally bought herself a pair after the knees on her cleaning uniform wore down from kneeling to clean tubs. With knee pads, both her uniforms and her knees have proved more resilient.
- When lifting from below waist level, bend the knees and lift with the legs and arms. Keep the back straight and upright, and position the feet to insure good balance.
- Avoid excessive reaching and bending when cleaning and vacuuming. Instead, move your entire body into a better position to do the activity.
- Work in pairs if possible, and call for a partner or security escort if you feel you might be in danger.
- Use cotton gloves while making beds and rubber gloves while cleaning the bathrooms. Wong began using both after over-bleached linens and bathroom cleaners caused her hands to redden and split open. "People who have been room attendants for a long time, all ten of their fingers are bent," Wong says. "The skin gets really dry and is broken and sometimes bleeds." (If you develop rashes or have trouble breathing while using latex gloves, remove them and consult a doctor; you may have a latex allergy. Use synthetic gloves instead.)
- Call a supervisor if you stumble upon the aftermath of a fight or violence. Leave the cleanup of potentially life-threatening body fluids to hotel cleaners outfitted in heavy-duty protective gear.
- When making beds and gathering towels or linens, check for needles and other suspicious objects. (Goetchius says that there have been a number of cases in which hotel cleaners have been stuck by needles that guests have left in the room.) If you do get pricked accidentally, seek immediate medical attention.
As her co-workers minister to throngs of eager tourists, Wong is on leave from her cleaning job. Thoughs she misses her co-workers, she is savoring her break from hotel guests.
"The guest's holiday is not my holiday," Wong muses. "Overall, housekeeping is a tough job."
Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE)
UNITE HERE! is based in New York, NY, and has regional offices in Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Toronto. UNITE (formerly the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees) and HERE (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union) merged on July 8, 2004 forming UNITE HERE. The union represents more than 450,000 active members and more than 400,000 retirees throughout North America.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
Established in 1970 by the Occupational Safety and Health Act, NIOSH is a federal research agency which makes recommendations to help employers prevent job-related injuries and illnesses.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
Part of the Department of Labor, OSHA develops and enforces safety and health regulations in the workplace.
Krause N, Lee PT et al. Health and Working Conditions of San Francisco Hotel Room Cleaners. School of Public Health at the University of California Berkeley, School of Public Health, Preliminary Report: 1999.
Kane JJ, Personick ME. Profiles in Safety and Health: hotels and motels; work-related injuries and illnesses. U.S. Department of Labor, Monthly Labor Review. July 1993. Vol. 116; No. 7; p. 36-41.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hotels and other Accommodations. November 2010.
UNITE-HERE. Creating Luxury, Enduring Pain: How Hotel Work is Hurting Housekeepers. April 2006.