Cleaning chemicals - minimising risk

14th of June 2022
Cleaning chemicals - minimising risk
Cleaning chemicals - minimising risk

Some chemical cleaning products pose a potential risk to staff – particularly when inhaled. ECJ finds out what employers and associations are doing to protect staff members and minimise the risk to cleaners’ lungs.

THE WORKPLACE IS A SAFER place today than it has ever been before. Or so we like to think. Safety came fairly low down the list of priorities in 18th and 19th century factories where accidents were all too common. Losing a finger or even a hand in the workings of unguarded machinery was an everyday occurrence in textile plants, for example. And lung diseases were prevalent in the cotton spinning sheds where dust and fibres were allowed to accumulate in damp conditions.

Meanwhile, the loud roar of machinery in many plants and factories made deafness an occupational hazard. Looking back we feel pity and horror at the fact that working people would unknowingly put themselves at risk in this way. But new dangers are coming to light all the time.

Lead-based paint was popular until the 20th century due to its hard-wearing properties, but exposure to lead can lead to high blood pressure, kidney damage and long-term harm. However its use in the workplace was not regulated until the 1980s. Similarly, asbestos – now known to be the cause of the serious long-term lung condition known as asbestosis – was widely used in the construction industry until the same decade.

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002 require employers to reduce the risk of staff exposure by monitoring the use of chemicals and carrying out risk assessments. Many chemical companies have now changed their formulations to make their products safer to use as a result of this legislation.

Effect on lung function

But despite this highly positive move, a 2018 a study carried out by Norway’s Bergen University revealed that regular exposure to everyday cleaning products had a significant effect on the user’s lung function. Tests carried out on cleaners who had regularly used spray products over the previous 20 years revealed lung functions equivalent to those of a 20-cigarettes-a-day smoker.

The study of 6,000 people revealed that certain chemicals in cleaning products irritated the mucous membranes lining the airways of the lungs, leading to long-term damage. Then a study last year, also from the University of Bergen, suggested children whose mothers work with cleaning products have a high risk of developing asthma - even years before conception.

According to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OHSA), millions of Europe’s cleaners come into close contact with potent chemicals every day as well as other substances such as dust, soot and mould which can be harmful to the health.

Many cleaning agents also include fragrances that can trigger allergies, claims the agency, and dangerous chemical reactions can occur when products are mixed. And the EU-OHSA staged a Europe-wide campaign from 2018 to 2019 aimed at highlighting the risks to cleaners.

Action by cleaning companies

But what are cleaning companies themselves doing to minimise the risks? Marketing and purchasing manager of Insider Facility Services Thor Nielsen says his company is well aware of the challenges posed by chemistry.

“We only use eco-labelled products for our daily fixed cleaning assignments, and we don’t use spray products that expose the user to the risk of breathing in fumes,” he said.  “In fact I have created a handbook detailing the chemistry, materials and other equipment that should be used as standard and all our managers have access to this.”

However, he adds the company sometimes uses products that fall outside its own safety parameters. “For example, we have periodic assignments where the customer may specify the use of a particular product or there may be situations in which we need to use an agent that is a little more powerful,” he said. “When this occurs we ensure the cleaner wears a mouthpiece - with or without a filter - as a minimum safeguard depending on the exposure time and the chemistry used.”

Insider Facility Services’ basic training incorporates the use of chemicals, he says. “It is also part of the curriculum in our internal academy,” adds Nielsen.

Atalian Servest is also very focused about safety according to quality, health, safety and environment manager John Crombie. “Awareness and education are both key to ensuring that everyone acts responsibly,” he said. “Our approach is to eradicate or mitigate the risk as much as is reasonably practicable to safeguard our employees and the wider industry.

“People are at the core of our business and we’re committed to providing the correct information, instruction, training and supervision to help our cleaners deliver a first-class service.”

The company’s chemical dosing system is said to be safe and accurate while minimising the risk of waste and leaks. “We also adhere to the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations with all the chemicals we use,” says Crombie. “This means we identify the hazardous components of substances and look at how they’re handled and dispensed, and we assess their potential entry-routes to the body plus the effect they could have on our employees.”

He says the company is committed to finding new methods of product selection, storage and dispensing that ensure a low risk of exposure to harmful chemicals. But like Nielsen he says there is sometimes a requirement for more powerful products.

“There are occasions when more hazardous substances are necessary and in these cases we will suggest the use of personal protective equipment and/or respiratory protective equipment,” he said.

“Employees are instructed on the potential hazards and any work carried out with such chemicals is closely supervised. And depending on the degree of risk, a face-fit testing may be carried out.” A face-fit test provides an added layer of safety by ensuring that the wearer’s safety mask is a good fit.

All cleaning environments should be well-ventilated where possible, he said. “However, preventing chemicals from getting into the air to begin with is also important,” adds Crombie. “In a well-ventilated area the chemicals may have a lower impact on our employees, but they could still be harmful to the surrounding ecosystem. This is why dosing and diluting systems that minimise chemical escape is crucial.”

The number of people occupying an area also needs to be taken into consideration, he says. “In areas with a high footfall, good ventilation isn’t enough. So we ensure we clean high-traffic areas either early in the morning or late in the evening when fewer people will be passing through.”

Staff training on the safe use of products begins on day one, he says. “All our cleaners have British Institute of Cleaning Science (BICSc) training that covers chemical competence, safe assembly and care of equipment, plus the correct storage of equipment and materials,” he said. “We also stress the importance of employees keeping their chemicals with them at all times so that vulnerable people and children are unable to come into contact with them.”

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work has come up with a list of recommendations relating to cleaners’ exposure to hazardous substances. This includes advising cleaning companies to record all products being used and to conduct risk assessments to ascertain the type, intensity, length and frequency of potential exposure to each product.

Take precautions

Where dangerous substances cannot be substituted, employers should ensure they are used and diluted according to the manufacturer’s instructions and not mixed with other products, states the agency. And it highlights the importance of adequate ventilation and personal protective equipment along with training in safe working practices, adding that employers should draw up a skin protection plan and monitor the health of those workers using potent cleaning products.

So how far are companies adhering to this advice? Insider Facility Services’ Thor Nielsen says: “We have datasheets of all the chemistry we use in our material on our app, as well as of many more
products in case our teams should periodically use something out of the ordinary. And we perform a job safety analysis before embarking on any specific cleaning assignment.”

Atalian Servest’s John Crombie says his company is fully committed to the EU-OHSA’s process. “We list all substances used, check MSDS sheets and replace harsher products with safer ones where possible,” he said.

“We also undertake risk assessments and carry these out in fine detail, incorporating a methodology for safe usage for each chemical. And we have set procedures for potential incidents while all employees are acquainted with the relevant procedures and instructions.

Greater awareness

“The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work provides a useful basic framework, but we believe in going above and beyond that to provide an enhanced level of safety for our employees and any other people who could be affected.”

EFCI, the organisation representing cleaning companies across Europe, is committed to ensuring the health and safety of cleaners at work according to its director general Isabel Yglesias.

“We are convinced that our joint efforts with detergent producers are ensuring healthier working conditions along with increased innovation,” she said. “Meanwhile, a greater awareness of the issue has led to the development of training tools that ensure cleaners follow the right instructions when dealing with potentially dangerous products.”

The EFCI works closely with European trade union body UNI Europa on health and safety issues and collaborates on the Social Dialogue. “The health and safety of cleaners is one of the top priorities of the Social Dialogue,” said Yglesias. “All cleaning product manufacturers have a responsibility to provide products that are safe for their intended use. And they also need to communicate methods of safe use to those who use their products and to professionals who are transporting, handling and using them in workplaces.”

She adds the use of chemical substances is already regulated in Europe under REACH, while the traceability of cleaning products is compulsory for cleaning companies.

“As far as safety training on mixing products is concerned, associations and companies usually provide this to their workers,” she said. “Training is one of the key differentiators for quality-based cleaning companies, and the EFCI is developing projects to support training and vocational training for the sector. “


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