Get Serious About Chemical Safety

From Mike Sawchuk, ISSA
Because most jansan industry professionals work with cleaning chemicals every day—both at work with customers and at home—some have developed a nonchalant attitude toward them. Plus, the general adoption of green cleaning has exacerbated this attitude in some cases because many cleaning professionals have the mistaken belief that green chemicals are always safe to use.
It is true that when used properly, both conventional and green cleaning chemicals are relatively safe. However, these products are not always properly handled, and accidents can and do happen.

The U.S. Department of Labor continues to classify cleaning and custodial work as high-risk jobs, mainly because of the many accidents involving chemicals that occur each year. It is estimated that six out of every 100 custodians in the United States experience a job-related injury each year caused by exposure to cleaning chemicals. These often include eye injuries, many of which are irreversible. Other injuries are typically skin related (e.g., burns) or are the result of inhaling chemical fumes.

Ironically, green chemicals are sometimes even more dangerous than conventional chemicals because they are delivered in such highly concentrated forms. While being packaged in higher concentrations makes green chemicals more sustainable due to the inherent reduction in fuel, transportation, and packaging needs, it also makes them very powerful and therefore potentially dangerous. Custodial workers should remember that most green and conventional chemicals must be diluted before use, typically one-half to one ounce per gallon of water to six ounces per gallon of water in order to be used properly and safely.

For this reason, facility managers and cleaning organizations are encouraged to work with their jansan distributors to develop a cleaning-chemical safety program. Such a program can help minimize the potential for injuries to cleaning workers and all building occupants. Once established, the program should be formalized and put in writing. This way, it can be readily available to anyone who uses, moves, stores, or handles cleaning chemicals at a location and can help all parties become familiar with the safety program.

Components of a Cleaning-Chemical Safety Program
When devising your cleaning-chemical safety program, be sure to keep these essential components in mind:

  • Have a complete record of all cleaning chemicals used in the facility, including how many gallons (and multiple gallon containers) are stored, where they are stored, and the potential hazards of and precautions necessary for each specific chemical (e.g., whether it needs to be kept away from direct sunlight). The program also should document proper cleanup and disposal steps in case of spills.
  • Maintain material safety data sheets—or MSDS—for each chemical used. These should be held with the chemical inventory documentation listed above.
  • Keep all chemicals in their original containers and never mix chemicals, even if they are the same type of chemical.
  • Store chemicals in well-ventilated areas away from HVAC intake vents. This will prevent chemical fumes from spreading to other areas in a facility.
  • Clearly display safety signage in multiple languages (or, even better, signs that use images) that quickly conveys possible dangers and precautions related to the chemicals.

Closet Decluttering and Other Considerations
Cleaning-chemical safety programs also should include the proper disposal of chemicals that have not been used for a prolonged period of time. A good guideline is to consider disposing of any chemical products that have not been used for six months and to properly dispose of any product that has not been used in a year.

Most chemicals should be stored at moderate room temperature away from direct sunlight. Temperatures above 85°F or below 60°F not only increase safety hazards but also can reduce the effectiveness of some products such as bio-enzymatic cleaners.

Finally, administrators should realize that chemical safety is an ongoing concern. Once the cleaning-chemical safety program has been established, managers should hold regular chemical safety meetings with custodial workers and others who handle chemicals to ensure proper chemical use. When it comes to the safe handling and use of cleaning chemicals, ongoing education is a must.

Mike Sawchuk has been involved with the jansan industry for more than 15 years. He is vice president and general manager of Enviro-Solutions Ltd., a leading manufacturer of “green” cleaning chemicals, based in Ontario, Canada. For more information, visit