Housekeeping's pain

Posted: June 09, 2007


Those comfy, thick comforters. The 300-count fine 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."

On Wednesday, Smith, 37, who has been cleaning hotel rooms for 15 years, joined a panel of scientists and ergonomic experts at the Convention Center 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.

Some of them were guests at her hotel, the Hyatt Regency Philadelphia, staying there for the convention, which ended Thursday.

"It's a hard job to make sure they have a comfortable stay," said Smith, of Overbrook in Philadelphia.

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 in the Philadelphia area start out at an hourly wage of $7 to $13. 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, changing sheets and wiping down showers in an air-conditioned, carpeted hotel room, is as much at risk for a back injury as a construction worker, lifting boards and hauling concrete.

"When I saw how many exertions per day they were exposed to, it made sense," he said.

"When you are making a bed, you are lifting the head or foot of the bed with lateral, twisting motions," he said. "When you do it quickly, that's where the problems are. There are good biomechanical reasons why it hurts."

Also joining Smith on the panel was Pamela Vossenas, an epidemiologist and public-health specialist now employed by Unite Here, the hospitality workers union.

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

Vossenas, along with ergonomic consultant Gary Orr - another panel member - 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.

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

"A lot of it is recognizing the extra work involved," she said.

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," she said.

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.

"The health of our employees is one of our most important issues," he said. "Without our employees, we can't service our guests."

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?"

Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769 or

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