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How Floor Cleaning Machines Create Workplace Hazards

I once had a customer in the packaging industry call because they were frustrated by how rapidly they were going through floor scrubber squeegees. To better understand their frustration, I decided to visit their facility, see with my own eyes how they were operating, and possibly retrain the operator. Little did I know what I was stepping into.

When I had arrived at the facility, I found the operator near the back of the facility. He was dumping Methyl Ethyl Ketone (MEK) out of a 5-gallon bucket onto the floor before he scrubbed. (If you’re not familiar with MEK, it’s extremely flammable and even just inhaling it can cause severe health complications.) The operator was using the flammable liquid as a pre-treat to take adhesive off the floor he was cleaning. He had turned the dirty water tank on his scrubber into a toxic bomb and didn’t even realize it…

Daily Inspection Checklist for Floor Scrubber or Floor Sweeper, including Tennant, Factory Cat, Powerboss, Advance, and more.

Using Dangerous Chemicals in Floor Scrubber

As the above operator is spreading highly flammable MEK, I stepped in alerting him immediately. Luckily, he was near an overhead door, so we threw open the door and were able to quickly push the unit outside. Thanks to timing, we escaped a potentially lethal situation.

This customer is the first example of a hazardous situation I’ve experienced with improper sweeping or scrubbing. Even at companies that have strict control over their chemicals, I have seen this type of situation. While we were lucky above, sometimes the situation does escalate- I’ve seen fires involving floor scrubbers three times now at car dealer shops. Many mechanics know that brake cleaner makes a great cleaner, but don’t know it’s about as flammable as gasoline! Another common degreaser component is Sodium Hydroxide. When this chemical is mixed with aluminum fines or dust, it gives off highly explosive hydrogen gas. Aluminum and sodium hydroxide in the dirty water tank is a disaster waiting to happen.

What you should do:

Anyone operating a scrubber machine needs to be properly trained about the dangers of using solvents or mixing different types of chemicals in their machine. If your company has volatile compounds in your plant, take extra care to eliminate any chemicals that could react with shavings or dust on the floor.

Lack of a Proper Dumping Location

Let’s imagine your operator has finished scrubbing for the day and needs a place to dump the spent cleaning solution. Let’s pretend your facility has a lack of interior drains, so they are either told to or decide themselves to dump the dirty water off the end of the loading dock. Maybe it seems convenient. Well as your operator is entering onto the loading dock, it gives way, dropping about 12 inches. That drop combined with the wet and slippery surface sends your operator and the equipment flying 3-4 feet to the ground below.

Unfortunately, we hear of this type of accident nearly every year, and on a few occasions, people have been killed in the process. In my career, this is the most common source of worker injury that I have heard about.

What you should do:

Ask your plant or maintenance manager what your company’s procedure is for dumping and cleaning up your sweeper or scrubber. If you have not established a proper dumping location, take a few minutes to make sure a safe cleanup process is in place where dangerous falls and slips are not a potential.

Improper Adjustment of Squeegee/Poor Vacuum

You’ve probably seen this happen before in large retail stores… An employee driving a floor scrubber down the aisle and leaving a trail of water behind. Often you won’t even see wet floor signs. The floor may be cleaned but it isn’t dry and safe for high traffic areas. A scrubber that’s leaving 30% of its water becomes an instant liability for dangerous slips, trips, and falls. And what most operators don’t know is that 99% of the time this problem could be remedied in 10 minutes or less. A water trail is typically caused by poorly adjusted or worn out squeegees. A clogged vacuum hose can have the same effect.

What you should do:

Your machine operator should be trained to recognize squeegee and vacuum issues and correct them. Does your squeegee have rips or tears? It might be time to rotate or replace. When was the last time they were wiped down with a clean cloth? Build up of dirt and oils can cause streaking too. Is the squeegee assembly bent or misshapen? This could cause an unlevel squeegee and a water trail. In addition, tweaking the vacuum performance of any scrubber generally needs to be done at least once per week where you clean out the filters.

Sweeping with a Clogged Filter

It is very common to see a power sweeper with a cloud billowing behind it. This is typically caused by a clogged filter. Running a power sweeper with a compromised dust control system won’t clean like it should and will only redistribute dust back into the environment. Materials from your plant processes and even the dust from the concrete floor itself can cause severe health problems for your employees.

What you should do:

Operators should be trained to stop and remedy this problem. It generally involves some simple maintenance, like vacuuming out the filter, or even just hitting a button that cleans the filter. If there is no simple remedy, the machine should be tagged out of service until fixed.

Scrubbing in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time

With forklifts, pedestrian traffic, and more, loading docks can become hectic in no time. During all this commotion is when some operators choose to scrub. At a busy loading dock, sometimes the last thing people are noticing is wet floors. Loading docks can be dangerous to begin with and adding a wet floor to the commotion can be fatal. I have seen the aftermath of forklifts sliding off the end of a loading dock all because the scrubber was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Pedestrian employees working around heavy machinery are at particularly high risk when wet floors are present.

What you should do:

Scrubbing early in the morning, or just after a shift is complete, often makes the most sense but might vary depending on your facility. Determine the most ideal time to scrub that gets the job done without putting other jobs or employees at risk.

The Motivation Behind Floor Cleaning Equipment

When I think about the early years in my career, the motivation to purchase floor cleaning equipment in a plant and warehouse came mostly from labor savings and the desire to improve the facility appearance. Yet after 30 years in the industrial floor cleaning industry, there is now one motivation that’s clearly at the top- workplace safety.

Some startling statistics involving accidents in the workplace are major reasons why companies are looking at floor maintenance to help keep employees safe:

  • Same level falls (not from an elevated area) cost American companies $6.6 billion in 2007 according to a Liberty Mutual Insurance study.
  • The average time off for workplace slip and fall victims is 14 days.
  • The average cost of each accident is $40,000 - $50,000.

In my past as a field sales person going into facilities, I witnessed these terrible tragedies that could have been avoided if management had put some simple processes in place. Workplace safety doesn’t just stop after spending thousands on a new floor scrubber or sweeper. You need time and effort to properly train operators about safe operation and put necessary safety procedures in place. Without this, introducing an automatic cleaning machine could pose an unintended threat to workplace safety.

The cleaning machine operator is also a very high turnover position at many companies, causing operators to be poorly trained. On top of that, with little OSHA regulation of our industry, floor cleaning equipment is also often overlooked by facility safety policies.

There’s no better time than now to prioritize floor cleaning safety. You already have the sweeper or scrubber. Now it’s time to go that extra step to make sure your floor cleaning process is not only effective and efficient but also hazard free.

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