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Home / Your Mother Doesn’t Work Here: Why Housekeeping Matters

Your Mother Doesn’t Work Here: Why Housekeeping Matters

The dangers of poor housekeeping are real. It saps productivity, morale and operating efficiency, yet goes largely ignored. When every competitive dollar counts, it’s puzzling that more shops don’t make a concerted effort to address a problem that is so easy to fix.

Posted: September 20, 2013

Housekeeping is the manifestation of pride in your organization. A clean and well-organized workplace is the cornerstone of a robust safety management program that promotes worker safety, respect, dignity, and morale. (Photo courtesy of Graham Garfield and Chicago Rapid Transit)
Housekeeping discipline is a subset of operational discipline. A strong commitment to housekeeping can address inventory management and control, such as clearing stock out of the aisles and removing and disposing of scrap and obsolete equipment and stock. (Photo courtesy of MPnL Solutions)

Perhaps the easiest — and most ignored — way to make your workplace safer is by improving your housekeeping. According to the National Safety Council (Itasca, IL), “Falls are one of the leading causes of unintentional injuries in the United States, accounting for approximately 8.9 million visits to the emergency department annually (NSC Injury Facts 2011).”

While not all slips, trips and falls are caused by housekeeping issues, a simple campaign to ensure a place for everything and that everything is in it’s place goes a long way toward improving not just working conditions, but safety of the workplace itself.

Housekeeping was traditionally a panicked response to a surprise visit by a customer or an audit. Workers were sent scurrying to “pick up the newspapers” as company stopped by unexpectedly. But housekeeping ought to be more than the frenzied reaction to an unplanned visit. Housekeeping is an important defense against trip hazards, accidental exposure to hazardous materials, fire hazards and a host of other nasty scenarios. Housekeeping is more than just tidying up; a robust housekeeping campaign can improve your operating efficiency in many ways beyond worker safety.

Housekeeping discipline is a subset of operational discipline. A strong commitment to housekeeping can address inventory management and control (clearing stock out of the aisles and removing and disposing of scrap and obsolete equipment and stock, for example.)

When you seriously attack housekeeping, you will find that your workplace will look less like an episode of hoarders and more like a world-class operation.

I know of a manufacturer that does a fair amount of work for the U.S. government. The G-men were generally pleased with the quality, cost, and delivery of the products the shop built, but were consistently disappointed by the physical condition of the plant: the facility was cramped and crowded with trash and stock strewn around the production area; it simply didn’t look very professional.

Once the company undertook a safety campaign that included a 5S program (a Japanese concept of workplace organization that places a high priority on housekeeping), the government representatives immediately took notice. The feds who came in on surprise inspections were struck by the cleanliness of the plant and actually increased their orders. While the increase in business was certainly the result of multiple factors, a clean and orderly workplace made the decision to source the work to the manufacturer easier and more defensible.

According to best selling author and employee engagement expert Dr. Paul Marciano, employee engagement is about respect; workers who feel respected by their employers are far more likely to be engaged than those who feel disrespected.

Good housekeeping is a key indicator of respect; you can easily gauge the level of respect employers have for their workers — and how workers about themselves — simply by looking at their housekeeping practices. Good housekeeping isn’t the result of panic-cleaning, spring cleaning, or even cleaning up once a day. Good housekeeping is the result of a clearly cast expectation of respect, i.e., the product of an expectation of respect for oneself, one’s colleagues, and one’s work place.

Housekeeping is the manifestation of pride in your organization. A clean and well-organized workplace is the cornerstone of a robust safety management program that promotes worker safety, respect, dignity, and morale.

One of the biggest offenders of poor housekeeping is the maintenance department. Often, removing obsolete equipment or fixtures, cleaning dross or offal, or just plain picking up after oneself is seemingly impossible for many maintenance workers. The clutter caused by poor housekeeping practices on the part of maintenance is truly embarrassing in some organizations.

Why is it so difficult for maintenance to pick up after itself?
One reason is the permitting process. Even organizations that are otherwise good at housekeeping often struggle with seeing the work orders and permits through to completion. Final project clean up is often over looked and — because it isn’t checked — is often seen as a non-priority.

In other cases it isn’t clear to whom a housekeeping duty falls. Who is responsible for keeping tools and equipment clean, in serviceable condition, and free from damage?

It’s just plain easier to get things done in a neat and well-organized work area. In addition to preventing incidents, good housekeeping saves space, time, and money. Work is completed with minimal waste and be done with minimal effort.

For organizations that are content to work in squalor, selling the need for good housekeeping can be tough. After all, what’s the risk of a little clutter? As it turns out, plenty.

Poor housekeeping can be directly linked to:
Slip, trips, and falls. According to OSHA “Slips, trips, and falls constitute the majority of general industry accidents. They cause 15 percent of all accidental deaths, and are second only to motor vehicles as a cause of fatalities.”

The situation is equally dire elsewhere, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety reports that “in Canada, over 42,000 workers get injured annually due to fall accidents. This number represents about 17 percent of the “time-loss injuries” that were accepted by workers’ compensation boards or commissions across Canada”, and a European report in QBE Insurance Issues Forum reports that slips, trips and falls account for 37 percent of Health & Safety Executive reported accidents, and over 50 percent of public related injuries.

Increased fire hazards. Clutter, poorly labeled materials, flammable liquids left out or improperly stored, and other mess not only create a fire hazard they also can block emergency evacuation routes and impede rescue attempts.

Combustible dust. Combustible dust is a growing problem in industry and, in almost all combustible dust explosions, poor housekeeping has played an instrumental role in the disaster.

Exposure risks. Depending on your processes, poor housekeeping may lead to a higher probability of worker exposures to hazardous substances like asbestos, silica, or a host of other toxins.

Mobile Vehicle and Pedestrian Incidents. Poor housekeeping increases the need to handle materials and congests the flow of materials. Stock is misplaced, left to block pedestrian aisle ways and creates blind spots that can easily lead to serious workplace injuries.

Good housekeeping doesn’t just happen, but if you expect — no, demand — good housekeeping practices for your workplace , then you are on the road to success. But demanding good housekeeping isn’t enough. To achieve a sustainable housekeeping approach:

Allow workers time to clean up. This is a standard industrial engineering principle. You should budget enough time for workers to police and clean their work areas; it won’t get done unless you allot time for clean up.
Be consistent in your expectations. Cleanliness never sleeps and you can’t excuse lapses in housekeeping for any reason.

Provide supplies. Workers are far more likely to clean their work areas if they have appropriate and sufficient supplies to do so. Keep a cabinet full of cleaning supplies, brooms, mops, and fox tails that workers can use to clean their work areas.

Set an example. Only a hypocrite will expect workers to keep their work areas clean while working in an executive pig sty.

Even though the dangers of poor housekeeping are real and it saps productivity, morale, and operating efficiency the problem goes largely ignored. In a world where every dollar counts it’s puzzling that more organizations don’t make a more concerted effort to address a problem that is so easy to fix.

  • Richard Brown wrote:

    An excellent article and one that makes many points that I whole-heartedly agree with. Poor housekeeping cannot be accepted in a “Best in Class” facility. It will bring down an entire organization if not addressed. A clean workplace is a safer workplace!

    • Phil La Duke wrote:


      Thanks for reading and thanks for your comments. I could agree more that a “Best-In-Class” facility should be hospital clean. People who take pride in their work typically don’t tolerate squalor. And while it’s true that a clean workplace is a safer workplace, it’s also a more pleasant workplace. We spend so much time in the workplace, why not have one that is pleasant and clean.

  • William H. Delamare wrote:

    Hi Phil

    Thank you for providing such an excellent memory jogger for a toolbox talk on Housekeeping. In the UK we also have people who think that when its hits the floor it is someone else’s problem. A link to the Fabricating and Metalworking site would be useful and I suspect prompt more replies.


    • Phil La Duke wrote:


      Too often people believe that the purpose of having a janitorial staff is to clean up after them, and some may even believe that picking up after themselves endangers those jobs. Who am I to argue with them? I will say this though, if you feel it is the job of the janitorial staff to keep things clean than you should hold them accountable for doing their jobs. At any rate, thanks for reading and taking time to comment.

  • Bette Danielson wrote:

    Totally agree! We have found from many customer site audits and compliance inspections that first impressions are huge. When the expectations are clearly communicated, the management on the floor finds a variety of ways to motivate their crew. Then I feel pride trickles down and new habits take root.

    • Phil La Duke wrote:


      First impressions do indeed make a big impression and I have found that government auditors tend to view violations that they find in a clean and orderly workplace differently than those that they find in a pigsty. Thanks for reading and commenting,

  • Paul wrote:

    Hello Phil. What experiences do you have with housekeeping on construction sites. In your experience how much does bad housekeeping contribute to trip and fall losses.


    • Phil La Duke wrote:


      I began my career (at least the professional side of the house) in construction and too often people have used “it’s a construction site” to somehow excuse poor housekeeping. Good housekeeping is a factor in many construction site injuries, but how many hasn’t been studied or quantified. I can say this with certainty, however, no one was ever killed because the construction site was too clean and organized.

  • Daphne Fallis wrote:

    Amen!! As an HSE coordinator coming from a continuous improvement background I have been trying to get the implementation of 5S a priority within the company. This was very well written and does an excellent job of getting across the message that I have been trying to share for the past year. You can be sure that I will be forwarding this up the chain of command!

    • Phil La Duke wrote:


      Coming from a continuous improvement background myself, I have always seen 5S as the “missing link” between continuous improvement and safety; it just makes sense. And while 5S has many advantages beyond safety, really how much convincing should people need to pick up after themselves.

  • Linda Hawkins wrote:

    Thanks so much for justifying my ‘irrational’ peeves about carts, garbage and extra furniture cluttering up hallways. Not only are they eyesores but they pose hazards for those walking down the hall. Someone is surely likely to put an eye out or trip over something. Not to mention what would happen in the event of an emergency evacuation where the hallway is whittled down to a narrow passage. I am sharing this one with our safety committee.

    • Phil La Duke wrote:


      The hardest sell I have ever had for housekeeping was, ironically, in healthcare. People insisted that carts and life saving equipment needed to be strewn willy-nilly in the halls (“so it’s there when we need it”) it made no sense to me why they would fight storing their crap on one side of the hall so that it didn’t become an obstacle course. Sometimes the change is just too hard. Now any time I hear the words “hospital clean” to refer to the desired state of another industry it makes me laugh.

  • Parthasarathy wrote:

    Brilliant article. You had touched almost all the aspects of poor housekeeping. It is sad why leaders fail to recognize the fact that poor housekeeping creates unsafe conditions and also the root cause of fire accidents, trips, falls and poor hygiene conditions. Though top management wants housekeeping to be improved, they do very little to support it. They introduce concepts like 5S, house keeping factors but lose the focus over a period of time. Concepts, systems and procedures can improve housekeeping in the short term, but in the long term the company culture ultimately determines the changes that bring about the desired improvement on housekeeping.

    • Phil La Duke wrote:


      Many 5S and housekeeping efforts lose focus over time, and in some cases that is most certainly due to a lack of management support. Instead, in many cases it is a lack of infrastructure that causes people to fall back into bad behaviors. Any organizational change must build an infrastructure that supports and rewards the positive changes. I have seen some 5S programs that were so complex and convoluted that no one could ever comply. I’ve also seen a massive clean up that rapidly cleans up a workplace only to have it a mess in a couple of weeks. It’s not necessarily a lack of management commitment, rather, a lack of a good structure for sustaining change. At any rate, thanks for reading and thanks for your comments.


  • Purushottam Rane wrote:

    Excellent article. Why people do not understand that housekeeping increases productivity.

    • Phil La Duke wrote:


      I think for many people they see it as their right to work in whatever disorder that pleases them. Too bad, because they are wrong. If they want to work in squalor they should start their own businesses.

  • Ana Luisa Arocena wrote:

    I totally agree with you. Only that, when you work in poor facilities with minimum investments, it is very very difficult to achieve a high standard housekeeping. It is not so easy to fix! It is a hard task to fight day by day against enthropy, but it is very needed.

    • Phil La Duke wrote:

      Ana Luisa:

      Good housekeeping costs very little and it can be very very difficult to achieve even in relatively prosperous work environments, in many cases we are asking people to do something that has never been an expectation of them. It can be very difficult for them to adjust to the idea.

  • David Gazda wrote:

    Great article, Phil. At a plastic injection plant where I worked as the HSE manager, we identified approx. 20% of our injuries were related to poor housekeeping, i.e. bottles on the floor, trim and flash debris all creating slip hazards. Adopting a 5S program with shadow boards for housekeeping tools and providing time at the end of the shift to do cleanup, made a significant impact to our injuries. The pride shown in the workplace also increased. Good housekeeping is not rocket science but a must for any HSE program!

    • Phil La Duke wrote:


      Years ago I worked in a filthy auto manufacturing plant. The windows were so dirty I couldn’t tell whether it was sunny or cloudy outside and it really depressed me. I took to washing two windows (those closest to my work station) during my lunch break. I was widely ridiculed and even threatened by other workers for doing so (I was told by one not so bright fellow that management would expect everyone to wash their windows). The bottom line is that, that little bit of sunshine that I got out of washing the windows was enough to boost my spirits

  • Ernie Doggett Jr wrote:

    I enjoyed your article. We never want to overlook the basics in providing a safe workplace.

    • Phil La Duke wrote:

      Thanks Ernie for writing, commenting, and your longtime support of my work.

  • Jane Puncher wrote:

    Great article Phil! This is exactly the message I have been putting across in a motor vehicle workshop although I’ve not been this good! I will be sharing your words in future – love the ‘Your mother doesn’t work here’!

    The workshop may not be a construction site, but be assured I hear all the same comments as I heard on the construction sites, including ‘it’s a garage, you can’t expect it to be tidy’ – 2 months on and its looking better 🙂 Granted not perfect as a drop of paint wouldn’t go amiss, but it has improved, just need to keep it up now!

    Thanks for the clarity that your article has brought!

    • Phil La Duke wrote:


      It doesn’t seem to matter in which industry you work, there will be those who will say “it’s a __________…it’s supposed to look this way”. For many, the expectation that we will keep our work place neat and orderly is not only foreign and strange, it’s also ridiculous. As long as we persist in our demand for a neat and orderly workplace eventually we will prevail, but we can never expect it to be easy. Thanks again for reading, and for taking time to comment.

  • Phil La Duke wrote:

    If you enjoyed this article you might consider attending my speech on the topic at the National Safety Council’s Texas Safety Conference and Expo on April 1, 2014 in Galveston Texas.

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