When you think about hazardous chemicals in the workplace, the first ones that come to mind may not be cleaning chemicals. Chemicals used for cleaning, though, can pose a number of hazards to worker health and safety, especially for workers who use them on a daily basis like janitorial staff.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 2.8 million people in the cleaning industry are potentially exposed to dangerous cleaning chemicals on a daily basis, and other employees may be exposed less frequently, too. Furthermore, about six percent of janitors are injured by exposure to cleaning chemicals annually.
OSHA warns workers that cleaning chemicals can cause health problems including wheezing, coughing, skin rashes, itchy eyes, skin burns, sore throat, headaches, dizziness, asthma and nosebleeds, among other problems. In general, the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) these chemicals can release into the air contribute to indoor air pollution, which can cause negative health effects for anyone in the work area.
Employers need to make sure the use of cleaning chemicals is as safe as possible by selecting less hazardous cleaning options, providing PPE and ensuring workers follow some basic rules for chemical handling.
Types of Cleaning Products
OSHA explains that there are three main types of chemical cleaning products: cleaners, sanitizers and disinfectants.
Cleaners are the most basic type of cleaning agent and remove dirt through wiping, mopping and scrubbing. Sanitizers, which may be required for some tasks by public health codes, contain chemicals that reduce the amount of viruses, bacteria and molds present. Disinfectants, which are the strongest type of cleaner, actually destroy all microorganisms and are typically required in medical environments.
OSHA recommends selecting the least potent type of cleaner required for a given job (disinfectants are generally the strongest, followed by sanitizers and then cleaners). The more potent the cleaning chemical, the more hazardous it typically is to employees, so it’s important to limit exposure to harsh chemicals as much as possible.
For example, if an employee is cleaning windows that aren’t likely to have hazardous pathogens on them, a harsh disinfectant probably isn’t required, and a less dangerous cleaner could be used. Meanwhile, if another employee is cleaning counters used for food preparation, a sanitizer is likely required to kill the majority of bacteria and other contaminants that could be present.
OSHA and the EPA also recommend selecting “greener” cleaning products whenever possible, as these tend to be the safest for both people and the environment.
Green Cleaning Chemicals
When a company switches from its current cleaning chemicals to less hazardous alternatives, safety managers and employers should consult safety data sheets (SDSs) for the old and new chemicals. SDSs can provide information about toxicity, VOC levels, corrosiveness, whether a chemical is a skin irritant and other pertinent information. This data can help determine whether a product is actually safer than others.
Companies can also consult manufacturer claims and certifications, but should take care to assess a product’s certifications for validity. The Green Seal program, for example, certifies products as more sustainable based on a number of scientific criteria. Visitors to the Green Seal website can also search institutional cleaning products to see what options are available.
OSHA also notes that green cleaning chemicals are often just as effective as other industrial cleaners and many of them are fragrance free. As OSHA puts it, “Clean does not have an odor,” so employers and workers shouldn’t be concerned that the smell of green cleaners is weaker. Often, the smell is less noticeable because the cleaners aren’t as harsh and contain fewer added scents.
In general, certified green cleaning products are safe, effective choices, but it’s important to do some homework and make sure the chosen products are what they claim. These products have become increasingly available in recent years, though, and businesses shouldn’t have too much trouble identifying cleaning chemicals suitable for their workplaces.
In the safety world, PPE is always the last line of defense between an employee and a hazard. In the case of cleaning chemicals, switching to green cleaning products is an engineering control. The switch removes a significant portion of the hazard from the equation. An additional engineering control could include opening windows for ventilation.
Despite using engineering controls, it may still be necessary for workers to wear PPE in many cleaning situations, so make sure you provide the required PPE for your work environment. This could include safety gloves, eyewear or protective clothing. Employees should also receive PPE training so they know when they need to wear it.
Rules for Chemical Cleaners
Employers are required to provide training in how to handle chemicals before an employee begins working with them, so companies should consult OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard so they provide the necessary training to remain compliant with OSHA regulations.
Workers should also obey the following basic rules for cleaning chemical safety:
- Don’t mix cleaning chemicals unless instructed to do so. Some chemicals, like bleach and ammonia, can cause serious damage to the lungs and in some cases result in death when mixed.
- Don’t wash your hands with cleaning chemicals. Just because the chemicals are suitable for cleaning floors or countertops does not mean they’re safe for use on skin. In many cases, rubbing the hands with chemicals can result in irritation or even burns.
- Dilute cleaning chemicals when necessary. Some chemicals may arrive at the workplace in a concentrated form and often aren’t intended for use at that level of potency. Make sure to pay attention to chemical labels and instructions from managers.
- If the smell of cleaning chemicals begins to bother you or you feel light-headed, take a break and make sure the room is properly ventilated. This could involve opening windows or vents, turning on fans and consulting your superiors.
- After handling cleaning chemicals, always wash your hands before leaving work and especially before eating anything.
Like any workplace chemical, cleaning chemicals will almost always pose some level of hazard, even when safer chemicals and PPE are used. Make sure to follow the Hazard Communication Standard for training and labeling so employees can confidently and safely perform cleaning tasks in your workplace.