Painful Luxuries - The Amenities Arms Race.
By Robert Kravitz
Tuesday, 14th November 2006
Some of us are old enough to remember the arms race that started in the 1950s and ended in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall.  This was a massive and expensive militarization movement on the parts of both the former Soviet Union and the United States.  The goal was a rush to build what was often referred to as, mutually assured destruction (MAD) weapons.

At about the same time, there was another race taking place—the space race, which grew out of this same militarization movement.  This race was more of a competition between the Soviet Union and the U.S. to see which could be the first to explore outer space, build satellites, send humans into space, and land astronauts on the Moon.  Luckily, both of these "races" have subsided over time and the two countries are more often partners rather than competitors on a host of international issues. 

However, a new race has developed in our own housekeeping backyard; it started gradually and is now sweeping through the hotel and hospitality industry.  Many call it "the amenities arms race" and some refer to it as "the battle of the beds."

Regardless of how it is referenced, this race refers to the same phenomenon:  Hotels are refurbishing their guestrooms—whether tourist class, luxury, or royal—and getting plusher with more and more amenities to exceed customer expectations as well as to top their competition.

Although hotel guests may appreciate these luxuries, in many cases, they are causing nothing but pain—literally—for hotel housekeepers.  In fact, the study "Creating Luxury, Enduring Pain," released in April 2006, found that hotel housekeepers now have the highest injury rate of all lodging workers in the United States.

Survey Findings

The study focused on the injuries of more than 40,000 hotel workers in 87 U.S. hotels from 1999 to 2005.  According to the study, housekeepers have a 10.4 percent injury rate—85 percent higher than non-housekeeping hotel workers. 

Even more, the study reports that the housekeeper injury rate climbed noticeably starting around 2002; this was when many believe the "amenities race" began.  Hotels, working hard to bring back customers after 9/11, started adding more luxuries to entice people back into traveling.

Apparently, new beds being installed as part of the amenities race are major culprits causing these injuries. Orr Consulting, a Virginia-based firm dealing in ergonomics, found that new hotel mattresses are getting larger—many now weighing more 115 pounds—much more than they weighed a decade ago.

Additionally, beds now often have five or more pillows and the duvets (bed covers) are getting larger, plusher, and considerably heavier as well—often weighing more than 14 pounds.  And, some hotels now use three sheets instead of two because they believe it makes the bed feel more sumptuous.

"But, all of this means more work—and heavier work—for hotel housekeepers," says Martha Ward, head of corporate accounts for Tornado Industries, manufacturers of professional vacuum cleaners, floor machines, extractors, and other cleaning equipment used in the hotel industry.  "Some housekeepers say the luxuries add as much as 15 minutes more work to each guestroom and yet they are still required to clean the usual 12 to 16 rooms per day.  And along with making heavier more luxury-strewn beds, they must still clean and re-stock bathrooms, dust furniture, wash mirrors, and of course, vacuum."

Industry Responds…and Seeks Remedies

Just as the studies indicate, more and more public health administrators are noticing the upswing in housekeeper injuries in the past few years.  One physician, Peter Orris, who is also a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says that hotel housekeepers were once considered "invisible workers" because they rarely reported job-related injuries.

"[But now we see housekeeping] as among the highest stress jobs (on the body) in the service and production industries," Orris says.  "This is a real problem and it looks like it's getting worse."

However, the American Hotel & Lodging Association believes some of these reports and studies may be exaggerated.  Still, the association indicates many of its member hotels are hiring ergonomic experts, implementing training programs, investing in automated room carts, and re-examining the tools and equipment needed to clean guestrooms. 

Orris believes this is a positive sign and does not suggest the solution to the problem is a return to lighter beds and guestrooms with fewer amenities.  Rather, he says, studies should focus on all the stresses on the body that can occur when cleaning a hotel guestroom and then to look for less stressful and more ergonomic ways of performing cleaning tasks. "This will allow us to better understand and identify the stresses, so we can make adjustments," he says.

Guestroom Ergonomics

Many experts ultimately believe that hotel housekeepers will need to be trained and re-trained on how to clean guestrooms so that their movements are less stressful to the body.  In fact, Mark Grossman, a spokesperson for the Chicago Hilton, says his hotel has already increased training to help minimize harm to housekeepers in amenity-filled rooms.  "The company is also easing workloads, replacing bathtubs in some rooms with easier to clean showers, and, to reduce dusting, removing bulky armoires and replacing boxy televisions with flat-screen TVs that hang on the wall."

Many hotels are also re-examining their cleaning equipment, especially vacuum cleaners—the most important tool in the housekeeper's cleaning arsenal.  "We are working with many hotels and housekeeping managers, looking for ways to reduce and prevent injuries," says Ward. "We've learned that certain features can really help make a vacuum cleaner safer to use, helping increase productivity and efficiency as well."

Among the features Ward references, include:

An ergonomically designed handle. 

"Hotel housekeepers should use upright vacuum cleaners with ultra-lightweight handles that conform to their hands," she says. "We also find that an enclosed handle helps control and operate the machine as well."

A manual height adjustment. 

Although some upright vacuum cleaners automatically adjust for different carpet heights, Ward says these systems are not always reliable nor do they always help the housekeeper.  "A more precise, manually adjusted height adjustment system often helps the vacuum cleaner work with the worker, and not the other way around," she says.

Quiet vacuum cleaners

Some studies have found that vacuum cleaners cause more noise than just about any other piece of cleaning equipment in a facility.  Noise causes fatigue, irritability, and can lead to accidents, according to Ward.  A quieter machine, around 65 decibels or less, helps alleviate this.

Built-in wand and stretch hose. 

"Cleaning a guestroom is like cleaning a mini-home; there are a variety of surfaces and areas to be cleaned all cramped together in a very small space," says Ward.   "Vacuum cleaners that are versatile and can easily multi-task help facilitate cleaning as they reduce stress," says Ward.  She also suggests selecting machines with "strain relief" systems to prevent cracking, tearing, and kinking.

Ward notes, as a result of the recent rise in injury claims, it might also be a good idea for hotel managers to look into an entirely different type of vacuum cleaner—one not often seen in the U.S. professional cleaning industry.  "In Europe, lightweight, super quiet, and yet powerful canister vacuums are very popular, especially in the hospitality industry," she says.  "These machines also tend to be less stressful to the body, very versatile, and efficient.  Because of this, not only do we expect more housekeepers to demand more ergonomically designed upright vacuum cleaners, but ask their hotels to take a serious look at canisters as well."


A recent survey by Unite Here, a union for textile, hotel, restaurant, hospitality, food service, apparel, and retail workers, of 622 housekeepers in Boston, Los Angeles, and Toronto found:

  • 91 percent said they had work-related pain
  • 67 percent had gone to doctors because of that pain
  • 66 percent took medication for work-related pain
Robert Kravitz is an author and former building service contractor.  He may be contacted in Chicago, IL USA at 773 525 3021.
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