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Work Design and the Labouring Body: Examining the Impacts of Work Organization on Danish Cleaners’ Health

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Globalization and neoliberalism are having significant impacts upon the cleaning industry, as in the drive for greater work “efficiency”. One way in which cleaning companies have sought to increase efficiency is through the introduction of new equipment and forms of work organization. However, such moves appear to be having negative impacts upon cleaners’ bodies, and many report significant work‐related health problems. In light of this, here we explore the bodily consequences of two possible strategies for giving cleaners a healthier workday—increasing variation within cleaners’ current work tasks or allowing them to engage in a broader range of tasks through job enlargement. Drawing upon a literature review performed as part of a recent European Union project concerning the degree of physical strain to which cleaners are exposed during cleaning, a Danish laboratory study focusing on the loads to which cleaners’ shoulder muscles, backs, and hearts were exposed by different cleaning tasks, and a field study investigating the effects of job enlargement in Danish hospitals, we show that cleaning work is characterized by repetitive work for the muscles of the body's upper extremities and by high levels of dynamic and static force upon these muscles, regardless of which modes of cleaning (old or new style of cleaning tools) are used. Equally, monitoring of heart rates and assessment of the psychosocial environment suggest that simply interchanging current cleaning tasks does not provide sufficient variation in cleaners’ work to prevent work‐related musculoskeletal or cardiovascular damage, nor to create a less mentally stressful work environment. Although introducing greater work variation through job enlargement (such as combining cleaning with kitchen and portering tasks) is often presented as an effective way to minimize musculoskeletal and cardiovascular damage, our field study shows that even this does not provide sufficient variation in physical work conditions, although improvement in some cleaners’ mental health was noted. Therefore, we conclude, prevention of musculoskeletal and cardiovascular disorders demands a much more comprehensive strategy of work redesign than that proposed by some employers and government agencies. Whether this is likely, given competitive pressures towards increased outsourcing and privatization, is, of course, the question.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: National Institute of Occupational Health, Copenhagen, Denmark; ;, Email: 2: Department of Geography, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, USA;, Email: 3: ArbejdsmiljøCentret, Virum, Denmark;, Email:

Publication date: June 1, 2006


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