To the casual observer, the job of a hotel housekeeper seems simple, but in reality the opposite is true. Hotel housekeepers perform an array of tasks that can cause serious and long-term injuries. Workers are also exposed to potentially hazardous conditions on the job from deep cleaning rooms with chemical products to contact with dirty linens, towels and other items used by hotel guests. While the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has no rules specifically governing the hospitality industry, hotels are required to comply with several broader directives. California has passed state OSHA regulations that specifically govern hospitality housekeepers.
Hotels Must Comply With OSHA’s General Duty Clause
Hoteliers are required to care for their employees’ health and safety as outlined in OSHA’s General Duty Clause. All businesses have a commitment to protect workers from genuine and perceived dangers in the work environment. If businesses do not comply with the General Duty Clause, OSHA can take action to enforce its safety standards.
Genuine Danger and Failure to Comply
Employees or their representatives can make complaints in any language to OSHA by telephone, visiting any OSHA office, submitting a complaint online or by mail. After a complaint is filed, OSHA inspectors visit the property to conduct an on-site inspection. They must find that a specific set of risks exists before they can issue a citation for violations. The type of risk should be something the hotel knows or should know about, such as back injuries from bending and lifting to turn mattresses and clean bathrooms; repetitive stress injuries from changing sheets and pillow cases; injuries from being exposed to chemicals in cleaning products; and biological or bloodborne hazards from handling used sheets and towels.
OSHA inspectors look for anything that can cause potential danger or bodily harm that will impact the employee’s life on or off the job. These workplace hazards typically result in therapeutic visits to a doctor or other healthcare professional, and the injury can be temporary or long term. The risks to the employees must also be correctable, meaning there must be a risk that is known and that can be corrected or decreased. Examples of correctable harm include providing equipment to ease the likelihood of carpal tunnel injuries from repetitive tasks such as vacuuming with heavy industrial machines or deep cleaning at awkward angles behind furniture and bath fixtures that could damage backs and shoulders.
Exposure to Bloodborne Pathogens
OSHA has established regulations for employees who come into contact with bloodborne pathogens or infectious microorganisms in human blood that can cause disease. The Bloodborne Pathogens Standard is designed to protect workers from the risk of exposure to bloodborne pathogens such as HIV and Hepatitis B and C. Hotel housekeepers face this type of risk daily when handling used linens and towels left by guests. Although the standard specifically refers to housekeepers in healthcare facilities, it is the hospitality industry’s responsibility to ensure its employees are also protected from exposure. OSHA expects that items such as sanitary napkins are discarded into lined waste containers to prevent contact with the contents. Nearly all hotels now offer vinyl gloves for staff to wear when handling used towels and bedding.
Unions Are Working for Stronger Regulations
Advocates for hotel workers have been calling for stronger protections and better training for hotel housekeeping workers. As more amenities are added to hotel rooms, housekeepers have to work harder and faster. Workers began petitioning the California Department of Industrial Relations Occupational Safety and Health standards board (Cal/OSHA) in 2012 asking for stronger protections for hospitality workers as hotel standards continue to offer more luxuries for guests. Upgraded luxury items are larger and heavier than previous offerings increasing the risk of injuries.
In March 2018, Cal/OSHA approved measures to protect housekeepers in the hospitality industry from workplace injuries. The standard requires hotels to identify and reduce injury risks by providing appropriate tools, such as long-handled mops and devices to assist in making beds. Housekeepers in California will receive training on how to prevent injuries and have the right to suggest solutions to management for reducing or eliminating health risks.
- Safety and Health Magazine:Keeping Hotel Housekeepers Safe
- EHS Today: Cal/OSHA Approves Hotel Health and Safety Rules
- UpCounsel: OSHA General Duty Clause: Everything You Need to Know
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration: Most Frequently Asked Questions Concerning the Bloodborne Pathogens Standard
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration: How to File a Complaint
- Hotel Management: New tools reduce housekeeping wear and tear
Frances Katz is an attorney who writes about legal issues in business for a variety of publications including The New York Times, The Week, Paste, The Independent and The New York Times. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.