When Pilar Medrano arrived at her janitorial job in a Los Angeles office building one day in September 1999, her boss handed her a bottle of an unfamiliar liquid and told her to remove some stains in the carpet. Medrano had no idea how much trouble this seemingly simple chore would cause her.
"While I was cleaning, some of the liquid sprayed on my face," she says through a Spanish interpreter. "Two hours later, my face was itching." By lunchtime, she was unnerved to find the skin on her face burning and showing signs of discoloration, but didn't seek medical attention because she was certain the symptoms would go away. But the problem only got worse. "After three days I couldn't stand it anymore," she says. She finally told her supervisor about the accident and got permission to see a physician.
Unfortunately, the doctor told her, there was no treatment for the chemical burn she had suffered. Since the accident, the skin discoloration has continued to spread, now covering half of her face and neck.
Medrano says she doesn't know what kind of chemical she splashed on her face, nor was she warned about the product or its potential danger -- and such perilous oversights are all too common in the industry. According to Craig Moulton of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), employers frequently neglect to inform their employees about chemical hazards on the job.
This neglect is not simply a lapse; it's against the law. Cal-OSHA, which oversees workplaces in California, where Medrano works, requires employers to train all workers about the dangers of the chemicals they'll be using before they start their jobs, and again any time a new hazardous chemical is introduced. The standard also requires employers to hand out safety data sheets for each material, listing the name of the chemical and its possible hazards.
The labels on all chemical containers must offer the same warnings -- but these labels are often printed only in English. Since the majority of workers in the industry are Latino and may not speak or read English, this is a serious problem, says Mike Garcia, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
"A tough industry to crack down on"
According to OSHA, it's ultimately the responsibility of the employer -- not the chemical manufacturer -- to make sure employees are aware of job hazards and ways to protect themselves. "This is a tough industry to crack down on," Garcia says. "Often the work is subcontracted out two and three times, and it's hard to tell who the real employer is." This makes it difficult to figure out who's responsible for flouting safety standards. In addition, some workers are undocumented immigrants unaware of their legal rights. According to Garcia, these workers "are just trying to survive, and will accept whatever conditions are doled out to them."
Injuries related to chemical exposures such as Medrano's range from skin irritation and burns to allergic reactions in the lungs or on the skin. Other hazards include lacerations from material such as broken glass left in trash cans, lung problems from removing mold, and nasty falls on slippery floors.
On the whole, janitors suffer more injuries than many other workers in private industry. In 2007, 262 out of 10,000 full time janitors were injured on the job more than twice the average injury rate for all workers in private industry, which was 122 out of 10,000 workers.
David Huerta, a senior organizer for the Los Angeles chapter of the SEIU, says the most common injuries he sees among janitors are shoulder problems and repetitive stress injuries (mostly from vacuuming); needle sticks (mainly in hospital settings); injuries related to chemical exposure (both from inhalation and from contact with skin); and back problems from lifting heavy trash. "If the elevator is broken, I have to drag heavy bags to the basement using the stairs," says a Salvadoran janitor who cleans dot-com offices.
While deaths are uncommon, workers must take precautions to avoid fatal electrocution and chemical inhalation, says Huerta. One janitor in Los Angeles, for example, was found unconscious after improperly mixing ammonia with an acidic solution he hadn't been trained to handle. The man had to be hospitalized, according to Garcia, and could have died if he had not been found in time.
Even common household cleaners, while safe when used by themselves, can form dangerous fumes when combined. Bleach and ammonia, for example, is a potentially deadly combination; never mix these two cleaning chemicals.
Caught off guard
While some may assume janitors spend the majority of their time pushing a vacuum or mop, they actually function more like apartment managers, doing everything from changing lightbulbs to recycling cans and glass. Variety in the job lessens the risk of repetitive strain but can also catch workers off guard, says Melissa Bean, DO, an occupational health specialist.
For instance, a custodian who's about to change a lightbulb must remember to turn the power off properly -- or risk possible electrocution. If using a ladder to reach the light fixture, he or she needs to know ladder safety in order to avoid a dangerous fall. A janitor working in a factory setting should don hearing protection before walking through deafeningly loud areas of the plant.
In recent years unions have helped improve conditions for janitors, Garcia says. For the last few decades the SEIU has led a national "Justice for Janitors" campaign to fight for improved wages and health benefits for janitors. Garcia says that some contractors continue to exploit workers (especially immigrants) as replaceable commodities in custodial jobs with long hours, low pay, and no training or safety precautions. Still, he believes that unionization is bringing progress toward higher wages, health benefits, and safer work environments.
The need for respect
One issue hasn't changed, however. Due to the nature of the work, most janitors still must work in the evening, which in most cases cuts into their time for sleep. Often custodial work is their second or third job, or they are caring for a family during the day. Commuting can add yet another stress factor. Not surprisingly, workers on these late-evening shifts tend to experience fatigue, disorientation, and feelings of isolation. Gerardo Yaqez, who works as a janitor at the University of California at Irvine, says he is often unable to get enough sleep. "I'm afraid I might hurt myself because I'm tired," he says through an interpreter. "It has a lot of impact because you don't have your wits about you when you haven't slept well."
Working off-hours can make it a lonely job as well. Some janitors say they enjoy the freedom of working without a boss looking over their shoulder, but some miss the camaraderie of other employees. "We never see a supervisor," says Yaqez. "Sometimes coworkers have a problem and there's no one to reach out to."
Occasionally janitors must contend with hostile tenants as well. One Latino custodian recalls being mistreated by an executive who worked late every evening. "She hated for me to move the trash can in her office, because it interrupted her work," he says. "She'd say things like, 'Can't you do this later?' She would glare at me as if she hated me. She also complained about the noise from the vacuuming. I finally asked for a transfer to a different floor."
For the most part, Yaqez says, his tenants treat him well. There are exceptions, however. Once, "I was mopping the bathroom, and a student got upset because I wouldn't let him in," he says. The student used profanity and called Yaqez names he doesn't care to repeat. This lack of respect, which sometimes surfaces in more subtle ways, is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the job. "I can't fully describe it, but I get the feeling from people here that they think I am less," Yaqez says.
The "Justice for Janitors" campaign has made respect for janitors a central issue of its crusade, alongside better wages and working conditions. Meanwhile, Yaqez says that despite the hard work, there are some perks to the job. He is especially gratified that his schedule allows him to spend so much time with his child. "I like the hours," he says, "because during the day while my wife is at work, I can watch my daughter."
Contact the Service Employees International Union, part of the AFL-CIO to find out how to get in touch with your local chapter and to get information on the Justice for Janitors campaign. http://www.seiu.org/property/janitors/
For fact sheets about workplace safety, see http://www.aflcio.org/issues/safety/
Oregon Health Sciences University offers a list of useful links regarding janitorial work. http://www.croetweb.com
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is a federal agency offering a number of publications on workplace safety, including a guide to safe lifting practices. 800/232-4636 http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/homepage.html
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Incidence Rates for Non-Fatal Occupational Injuries Involving Days Away from Work per 10,000 workers, Table 23, updated March 2009 http://www.bls.gov/iif/oshwc/osh/case/osnr0031.pdf
"Physician reports of work-related asthma in California, 1993-1996." Am J Ind Med, 2001, Jan; 39(1);72-83.
Service Employees International Union. Campaigns. http://www.seiu.org/property/janitors/campaigns/index.cfm