Maintenance and Operations, Safety, Training

We Need to Think About Cleaning Safety

Several years ago, a restaurant worker died while performing one of his regular tasks—cleaning a restaurant’s kitchen floor.

To clean the floor more effectively and efficiently, he decided to combine two incompatible cleaning agents: concentrated chlorine bleach and an acid-based cleaning solution. An example of an acid-based cleaning solution is ammonia; however, reports of the incident did not indicate ammonia was combined with the bleach.

“When bleach is exposed to acids or ammonia, it will give off a deadly gas as part of the chemical reaction,” said Mark Warner, then the education manager at ISSA, the worldwide cleaning association. “This was actually used as a weapon during WWI, yet we still struggle to educate everyone in the cleaning industry about the dangers of mixing two chemicals into one solution.”

But that is not the end of the story. The toxic fumes began drifting throughout the restaurant. Within minutes, 13 people were having trouble breathing, experiencing runny/watery eyes and shortness of breath. They had no idea what was causing the discomfort. All were taken to the hospital and, in this case, survived the ordeal.

Why are we bringing this story to the attention of facility managers? Because, as people return to offices, schools, and similar facilities, we need to think about cleaning safety—to protect the health of cleaning workers and, as pointed out in the scenario just discussed, others working in or using a facility.

What may surprise many is that cleaning is invariably listed as one of the most dangerous professions in the U.S. OSHA says cleaning workers, while in the process of performing their duties, can be exposed to biological hazards, chemical hazards, poor indoor air quality, slip-and-fall accidents, and because of all these potential hazards, stress. In fact, stress can be the most severe hazard of all, as it prevents cleaning workers from having “cool heads,” which enables them to deal with the other hazards calmly and appropriately.

So, how can facility managers, working with their in-house and hired cleaning crew, make cleaning safer, helping to eliminate or at least minimize potential threats? Among the steps they can and should take are the following:

Conduct a cleaning solution audit. Look at all the cleaning supplies used—and not used—in the facility. Any cleaning solutions not used for one year or more should be safely tossed away; aging, stored chemicals can release harmful fumes. Further, identify which products are green-certified and which are not. When used properly, environmentally preferable cleaning solutions are safer for the user and building users. Begin by replacing all traditional cleaning solutions with their green-certified counterparts.

Professionalize product selection. Not all cleaning products and solutions will perform the same in different facilities. For instance, what works well in one school may not prove effective or be appropriate in another. This could be because of how the school is used, the materials used to construct the school, the age of the school, number of users, and so on. The most effective way to professionalize product selection is to work with an astute janitorial distributor, specifically one that is part of a network of distributors. These distributors learn about products directly from manufacturers and the experience of others in the network and will know which products will work best in your facility. That’s their job, and invariably it will pay dividends for you.

Install chemical dispensing units. These units can precisely mix cleaning solutions with water as listed on the product’s label, promoting both cleaning effectiveness and safety. Using too little cleaning solution can negatively impact cleaning results, and using too much can prove dangerous to the user. Because these dispensing units are often attached to the wall in a janitorial closet, making them a permanent addition, it is frequently up to the facility manager to install and provide them.

Read first, then clean. Every professional cleaning solution sold in the United States must include a Safety Data Sheet (SDS). Unfortunately, these can be difficult to read, but the most important parts of an SDS are typically straightforward. They will include instruction on the recommended use of a product, potential hazards using the product, and what steps to take if the product is misused or causes a health-threatening reaction. Unfortunately, the SDS is typically referenced only after an incident has occurred. Whenever a new cleaning solution has been introduced, facility managers and building service contractors should make reading the SDS mandatory, and it should always be readily available.

Make custodial training ongoing. This is true of in-house cleaning workers as well as contracted cleaning professionals. In fact, it should be listed in the scope of services and the request for proposals (RFPs) delivered to cleaning contractors when they bid on cleaning your facility. The key word here is ongoing. Ongoing training means regularly conducting training programs throughout the year that help improve custodial worker performance, help workers stay up to date with new cleaning products and technologies, and ensure they are employing best practices when cleaning facilities. Ongoing training also helps prevent cleaning workers from slipping back to old cleaning methods that may not be as effective or potentially cause harm to them and building users.

We should add one more thing. The professional cleaning industry is going high-tech. Vacuum cleaners and floor machines are being taught where, when, and how to maintain floor surfaces. When it comes to their effectiveness—and the safety of cleaning workers and building users —they are only as good as they have been programmed. Because these systems are new, once again, an astute janitorial distributor should be called in to program the machine—as well as train cleaning workers to ensure the machine carries out those instructions properly and safely.

Michael Wilson is is Vice President of Marketing at AFFLINK, a distributor-based company specializing in marketing packaging, cleaning products, and technologies that improve building efficiencies as well as help protect human health and safety. He has been with the organization since 2005 and provides strategic leadership for the entire supply chain team. In his free time, Michael enjoys working with the Wounded Warrior Project, fishing, and improving his cooking skills.

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