Twenty hotel housekeepers spent their hard-earned time off last fall repeatedly making a bed at the Motion Analysis Research Center (MARC) at Samuel Merritt University (SMU) to study new ways of making their jobs less painful.
They are participating in a research project led by Carisa Harris-Adamson Ph.D., an assistant professor in SMU’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program who specializes in the prevention of work-related musculoskeletal injuries. The goal of the project, which began in September, is to determine whether employing a plastic wedge to lift mattresses and the use of fitted rather than flat sheets can to help reduce the risk of lower-back, arm and shoulder injuries among hotel room cleaners.
“These women are phenomenal and have been really helpful in getting this research done,” said Harris-Adamson. “I don’t think people realize how physically hard their work is.”
Harris-Adamson said the opening of the MARC at SMU just over a year ago enabled her to receive a $10,000 pilot grant for the project from the Southern California Education and Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“The MARC has provided a lot of opportunities to do research at SMU that were not possible prior to its opening,” Harris-Adamson said. “It’s a fantastic lab. It’s got great equipment and excellent support.”
The center is designed to advance the study of human movement in education, research and patient care. Its primary mission is to serve as teaching center on motion analysis for faculty and students from SMU’s California School of Podiatric Medicine (CSPM), Department of Occupational Therapy, and Department of Physical Therapy.
“What attracted me to this job was that this was a brand new lab with all of the latest technology,” said Drew Smith Ph.D., director of the MARC. “But what really fascinated me was that it was a meeting of the minds of three related disciplines. I never had the experience of working where three different disciplines merged around human movement.”
The 2,000-square-foot lab is equipped with three-dimensional motion-capture cameras, in-floor force and pressure platforms, and a SMART EquiTest® to assess balance control and postural stability.
In addition to providing educational opportunities for SMU students, the MARC is also hosting a number of research projects including investigating an adjustable orthotic developed by a Southern California podiatrist. Future research may include analysis by Harris-Adamson of a perching stool as an office alternative to sitting or standing, and a study of gait in autistic children by OT Professor Guy McCormack Ph.D.
Smith said an additional goal is for the MARC to provide clinical services to the community and SMU alumni have already expressed interest in sending patients over for care. “That would also stimulate ideas for research and demonstrate to students what they’re learning in class,” he said.
Smith is helping Harris-Adamson with the hotel bed research by offering his skills in laboratory data collection, analysis and technology. Long interested in occupational health, Smith once worked for the Australian government in ergonomics and how to lower back stress among manufacturing workers.
Harris-Adamson’s interest in the challenges faced by hotel cleaners began while working as an ergonomic consultant in 2004. That was shortly after the start of the so-called “bed wars” among major hotel companies competing to attract guests who craved more plush accommodations and a good night’s rest. Since then, the chains have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in luxury bedding, including thick mattresses that can weigh up to 200 pounds.
Housekeepers have also paid a high price for the comfort of hotel guests. In addition to other cleaning tasks, they make an average of 18 to 24 beds each day, lifting the heavy mattresses dozens of times to tuck in multiple sheets. Studies show much higher injury rates among hotel housekeepers than other service workers.
For Harris-Adamson’s study, each housekeeper makes a queen-sized bed eight different ways over four hours. The researchers monitor the women’s heart rates, and use an Electromyography (EMG) to measure muscle activity as well as a lumbar motion monitor to detect lower-back strain.
Harris-Adamson will determine whether using the mattress lift tool and fitted sheets benefit the hotel cleaners by reducing their exposure to injury. Once her research results are complete, she will present the data at national and international conferences as well as to the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
In the meantime, several high school juniors from the Envision Academy of Arts and Technology in Oakland simulated their own research at the MARC in December based on the hotel bed study. It was part of a two-week internship at SMU that provided the students with a variety of learning experiences.
The internships were arranged by Harris-Adamson, who taught Envision Academy students how to swim and sail last summer. The charter school’s mission is to ensure that its students pursue higher education.
“The school really empowers students to change their lives,” she said. “It’s the perfect high school for SMU to partner with.”