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Establishing a Chemical Safety Program

Written by  Paul Wildenberg

As many cleaning professionals know, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is currently making changes regarding the labeling of chemicals, including cleaning solutions, sold in the U.S. This new program is called the Globally Harmonized System. While one of its main goals is to “harmonize” chemical labels so they have similar warning signs and formats regardless of the country or language, an additional goal is to help promote chemical safety.

Chemical safety is a huge concern in the professional cleaning industry. For years, cleaning work has been viewed as one of the most hazardous professions—typically ranked in the top ten—due to the number of injuries caused by cleaning chemicals. Note that this applies to all chemicals, both conventional and green. Many accidents have occurred with green cleaning chemicals because the user thought they were safe no matter how they were handled.

Let’s be perfectly clear about this: All cleaning chemicals are potentially hazardous and should be used strictly in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions and common sense. This includes the application of the chemical, how it is diluted, and even if other chemicals—which may not mix together well—are being used to clean the same or a nearby surface.

Before going into how to ensure chemical safety, we should point out the key ways that exposure to harmful chemicals can occur:

  • Contact with the eyes
  • Absorption through the skin
  • Inhalation
  • Ingestion by mouth

The route of exposure can also be a combination of these and will determine how the resulting irritation is treated.

General Rules

Common sense prevails when working with any chemical, including cleaning solutions. For instance, to protect against skin irritation, always wear gloves when cleaning, especially when working with chemicals. Additionally, ensure safety when removing gloves by pulling one glove, starting from the wrist, over the fingers and off the hand. Then slide a finger from the free hand under the other glove and pull it outward and off the glove. This minimizes the possibility of chemicals transferring from gloves to skin.

If a chemical does come into contact with the skin or eyes, flush with copious amounts of water immediately. Medical attention is highly recommended, especially when a chemical comes in contact with the eyes.

Should any chemical or chemical residue get on clothing during cleaning tasks, the best step is to remove the contaminated clothing. When a chemical is on your clothes, it is very easy, even likely, that during the course of your work you will touch the contaminated area and get the chemical on your fingers. From there, it can quickly travel to your eyes or mouth. If clothing cannot be removed, thoroughly rinse the problem area.

Other precautions include wearing protective clothing—close-toed shoes, long pants, and safety goggles—when you know you will be working with powerful chemicals.

Storage Considerations

Chemical safety actually begins before a cleaning chemical is ever used—it begins with proper storage. Storage areas for cleaning supplies must be kept clean and tidy. This is very important. A messy storage area typically gets even messier, and this opens the door for an accident to happen, whether it’s a slip and fall, a spill, or someone selecting the wrong chemical. Conversely, a clean and orderly storage area is easier to navigate and is typically treated more carefully by custodial workers, decreasing the possibility of an accident.

For the safest chemical storage, follow these safety measures:

  • Keep all chemicals on racks and off the ground to prevent spillage from one chemical to another.
  • Have a complete list of all chemicals stored in the storage area and when they were purchased.
  • Ensure all containers are tightly sealed at all times.
  • Organize chemicals by how they are used, restroom chemicals in one area, food service in another, etc. Some cleaning professionals even color code their chemicals and storage areas to ensure that like chemicals are stored together (for example, red-dotted chemicals are only placed in red-dotted storage areas).
  • Place warning signage on racks where more dangerous chemicals are stored and include the type of hazard, such as flammable, acid, skin irritation, and so on.
  • Store all containers with the front of the container facing out. This avoids the need to turn containers around to see what is in them and possibly spilling the chemical or knocking another chemical off the shelf.
  • Any spillage should be cleaned up as soon as it is detected; however, if there is concern about what the spillage is, hold off cleaning the area until the chemical can be identified (see Creating a Spill Response Plan sidebar).
  • Do not use an old chemical container to store another chemical.
  • Do not remove labels from the containers. Custodial workers should be instructed to read the labels and understand the potential hazards of using the product.
  • Do not store incompatible chemicals, such as bleach and an acid-based product, near one another.
  • Keep all chemicals away from heat or direct sunlight.
  • Ensure that the storage area is well ventilated but not connected to the facility’s HVAC system. This eliminates the possibility that fumes from the storage area are dispersed into other areas of the building.
  • Make sure the storage area is well lighted.

Make sure Safety Data Sheets (SDS), which are replacing Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), are quickly available for all chemicals stored.

Along with the SDS, it is often a good idea to have emergency telephone numbers available in the storage area. Some cleaning professionals now even store small emergency packets that have phone numbers and instructions as to what to do in all types of emergencies, from a chemical accidents, slip-and-falls, fires, etc.

As mentioned, it is also important to keep track of each chemical and when it was purchased. A chemical that has been unused or rarely used for several months may not work as effectively as when it was new. Plus, its container may become corroded, resulting in a leak. If a product has not been used in six months, consider disposing of it. If it has not been used in a year or longer, it is probably best to properly dispose of the product.

Training is Key

Finally, you cannot end a discussion on chemical safety without discussing training. Training is a very big part of the professional cleaning industry today, and it often involves how to use chemicals, tools, and equipment as well as cleaning processes. For some reason, however, the proper handling of chemicals often gets overlooked. Don’t let that happen with your crew. Spend a few minutes with each new hire and regularly with the entire crew reviewing some of the items mentioned here as well as other chemical safety tips. Ensuring chemical safety for our workers is a major step in getting our industry out of the top-ten most dangerous professions.

Paul Wildenberg is vice president of sales for Charlotte Products / Enviro-Solutions, a leading manufacturer of conventional cleaning and Green-certified cleaning products.

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