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The Safety Hazards of Cleaning Products

Breathing in a cleaning solution that has not been properly diluted can cause temporary asthma. Make sure you’re properly protecting any janitorial workers in your facility from potentially harmful disinfectants.Breathing in a cleaning solution that has not been properly diluted can cause temporary asthma. Make sure you’re properly protecting janitorial workers in your facility from potentially harmful disinfectants.

Disinfectants are potent enough to kill bacteria and viruses, but have you considered what these “antimicrobial pesticides,” as they’re sometimes called, would do to your skin or lungs if their fumes were ingested?

When certain cleaning products are improperly used, they can cause problems such as skin rashes, burns, coughing and even asthma for the employees who work with them. For facility managers, maintaining a safe environment for janitorial staff is both an ethical responsibility and a legal obligation.

To understand how certain cleaning agents affect a person’s health, it’s important to first understand the different categories that cleaning products fall into. Not all countries, or even agencies within the same country, agree on the classification of hazardous cleaning chemicals, so the United Nations developed the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) to provide regulatory guidance for national programs addressing the safe use of chemicals.

In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) decide how to apply different elements of the GHS. Here’s what they say about the dangers of using industrial-strength cleaners on the job:

Types of Cleaning Products

The stronger the cleaning product, the more likely it is to contain harsh, hazardous chemicals. The EPA classifies products depending on the purpose they serve:

  • Cleaners simply remove dirt and dust in conjunction with wiping, scrubbing and mopping.
  • Sanitizers use chemicals to reduce, but not necessarily eradicate, bacteria, viruses, mold and other microorganisms. Public health code usually mandates sanitizing certain germ-prone areas like food-prep surfaces and toilet seats.
  • Disinfectants annihilate or inactivate infection-causing microorganisms. Disinfectants are also called “antimicrobial pesticides.” These products are crucial for preventing infections in health care settings like hospitals and doctors offices.

Sanitizers and disinfectants are usually more dangerous than cleaners. If sanitizing or disinfecting isn’t necessary or required, use a cleaner.

Employee Accident? It’s on Your Hands Now

It’s the responsibility of facility managers and employers to provide a safe working environment for employees working with cleaning chemicals — including any harm they might accidentally cause to themselves as a result of miscommunication on how to handle these products. Breathing in a cleaning solution that has not been properly diluted, for example, can cause temporary asthma.

OSHA requires employers to get and maintain Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for all hazardous cleaning chemicals they use. These sheets list the chemical ingredients and symptoms of potential health problems caused by exposure to them; recommend personal protective gear for working with the products; and explain first-aid steps to take if an employee is exposed to the chemicals.

 Best Practices for Worker Safety

Because cleaning chemicals pose serious threats to health and safety when not properly handled, their hazards — as well as the practices and protective measures to maintain safety — must be communicated in training before employees begin work. OSHA provides a more thorough guide to protecting workers who use cleaning chemicals but, in general, a few ground rules include:

  • Never mix products containing bleach and ammonia; doing so can release toxic, potentially fatal fumes.
  • Dilute the products that need to be diluted.
  • Use appropriate protective gear such as gloves, goggles and, if needed, respirators.

Employers can also maintain a safe environment by:

  • Going over the use, storage and emergency spill procedures for chemicals
  • Labeling all cleaning products to identify harmful contents and potential hazards
  • Operating ventilation systems during cleaning tasks to prevent the buildup of dangerous fumes
  • Providing a place for employees to wash after using cleaning chemicals

 Cleaning Chemicals: Resources

OSHA Infosheet: Protecting Workers Who Use Cleaning Chemicals (PDF)

Asthma and Cleaning Products: What Workers Need to Know (PDF)

Greening Your Purchase of Cleaning Products: A Guide For Federal Purchasers

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