When we talk about ergonomics, many will think of specially-designed desk chairs, tilting computer screens or even non-conventional keyboards made with user ability in mind. But ergonomic design and equipment isn’t just necessary for people who sit at a desk all day.
In fact, in hotels, ergonomics can be the difference between happy, healthy staff or a challenging and costly high turnover of employees – not to mention worker compensation claims.
“The goal of ergonomics,” explains Pamela McCauley, Ph.D., CPE – an expert in the field who has conducted studies on hospitality environments – “is to reduce occupational risk factors, prevent injuries, reduce the occurrence of slips, trips and falls as well as reducing soft tissue injuries and musculoskeletal disorders caused by sudden or sustained exposure to force, vibration, repetitive motion, and awkward posture.
“It’s very important to make sure that you have workplaces and equipment designed to reduce those risks.”
What are the issues in hotels?
If repetitive tasks and physical strain are the ingredients for potential injury, hotels can be a hotbed of problems.
Housekeeping – an essential department for the running of any property – sees a large portion of the issues. A 2002 study published in the Journal of Public Health Policy showed that more than 75% of San Francisco hotel employees reported work-related pain or discomfort. That same year, the American Journal of Industrial Medicine published another study which reported that 62% of all housekeeping injuries were identified as musculoskeletal disorders, such as tendinopathy and arthritis.
Since then, much has improved, but there is still a long way to go. According to 2010 research, housekeeping staff are still the most at risk, with around five times as many injuries found in housekeeping staff than other job, such as cook, server or dishwasher. And in a 2017 Study of Orlando hotel workers, nearly a third reported 'severe pain' in the upper back and lower back, and over a quarter reported the same kind of pain in their neck, upper arms, elbows and ankles.
Finally, more recently, in a 2017 study conducted in Malaysia, over 50% hotel housekeepers found both the linen cart and vacuum cleaner were too heavy or broken, making their job harder and the potential for injury more widespread. Simple issues such as inadequate equipment are still causing serious harm to employees today.
It’s not just housekeeping, though. There are issues in the kitchens, too. Carrying heavy items, slipping on wet floors or even just repetitive stirring of a pot on a hot stove can make working in a kitchen unpleasant and – at its most serious – a health risk.
How can ergonomics help?
The real cost of these injuries goes well beyond dissatisfaction at work, though. Dr McCauley says that significant costs can be saved if properties invest in the right equipment and practices.
“For starters, [by investing in ergonomics] you reduce the amount of workers compensation costs associated with injuries,” she says. “You also can improve your employee morale and productivity.”
Practically, this means some processes may need to change. In housekeeping, for example, a simple solution such as having two housekeepers working together, alternating bedroom and bathroom duties when servicing guestrooms, will effectively cut the repetition in half and it makes the process more efficient, therefore saving money too. Buying mops and vacuum cleaners with ergonomic handles can significantly reduce the impact of repetitive and excessive strain on wrists.
In the kitchens, the actual physical layout is an important factor to consider, says David Pedrette from Target Catering Equipment. “You might think that you would work off the basic triangle principle that is applied to domestic kitchen. But in a commercial kitchen, you just don't have one person doing all the work.” A crowded kitchen can present more risk, and logistical problems too. In larger operations, for example, it’s essential that an executive head chef can see everything everyone is doing. “[They need] to be able to stand in one place and look and see what everybody's doing so that you can conduct like a conductor of an orchestra.”
Keeping cool in the kitchen
Pedrette also explains that simple additions to common equipment can make a huge impact. “Say you want to fill a pot with water. What do you do? You pick it up off the hob, carry it across the kitchen, you stick it in the kitchen sink, you turn the tap on, fill it up, then you have to carry it across the kitchen, put it back on the range. What's the simple answer? Put a tap on the cooker.”
The biggest problem in the kitchen, though, is heat. While this not only presents physical health risks, it also creates stress in an already high-pressure environment. “If you take the heat out of the kitchen, it becomes a more calm and collected,” explains Pedrette. “So you have to look at the type of equipment you put in there.”
Target install induction hobs in order to reduce heat, and Pedrette says the impact is wide-ranging: “It means that you can focus your mind, and you can start to produce far more efficiently and a higher quality of product.
There’s plenty of digital technology out there that can help with ergonomics too. “One of the areas where hotels have done a very good job is probably inside the check in area,” explains McCauley. “As now we're starting to see tablet devices that are used, so you don't have the staff having to engage a computer quite as much as they previously did.”
Virtual reality is playing its part too, with kitchen design tools like Kitchen Kraft that offer VR walkthroughs of the space before you commit to installing. Plus, clever cooking gadgets that offer temperature control, timers and remote control mean chefs can cook overnight without being present. As with many ergonomic implementations, this too saves time, stress and ultimately money.
Pedrette says it’s about looking at the bigger picture when it comes to ergonomics – there’s a good economic case for it, so hotels just need to commit to the investment to get long-term gain.
- Ergonomics is the study of people’s efficiency in their working environment and in hotels there are a multitude of departments that can benefit from assessments and investment
- Studies show that a huge majority of housekeeping staff have reported workplace-related injuries such as arthritis and tendinopathy
- Commercial kitchens are a stressful environment. Ergonomics can be used to improve mental health among chefs while increasing productivity and quality
- Simple solutions such as replacing broken equipment or purchasing specially-adapted tools can have huge, long-term benefits
- Technology is playing a part too, with virtual reality and ‘Internet of Things’ devices improving ergonomics in hotels and kitchens