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Protecting Custodial Workers: What Every New Cleaning Worker Needs to Know

Long before COVID-19 infected patient zero, a large percentage of the 3.25 million cleaning workers in the U.S. received little job training. In some circles, the assumption is that most people know how to clean, so the absence of training might not seem like a big deal. Individuals in these groups treat it as an inherent skillset that people are either born with or learn at an early age. 

But the thing is, not everyone just “knows” how to clean. As a recent survey showed, the majority of Americans aren’t disinfecting properly. And the processes you would use to clean a building are different than how you would clean your home or apartment.

There are many issues with the lack of occupational training in the cleaning industry, but a primary issues is the increased risk and exposure to workers. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that cleaning workers suffer the second highest rates of job-related injuries of any occupation—injuries heavy lifting, overexertion, chemical exposure and slips and falls are most common.

Reducing Risks to Cleaning Workers Now and After the Pandemic

When it comes to COVID-19, cleaning and disinfection is essential in stopping the spread of the disease. Aside from person-to-person spread, COVID-19 spreads when a person comes into contact with contaminated surfaces or objects. So when businesses slowly begin to open again over the next few months, all eyes will be on cleaning workers. Regular, systematic cleaning and disinfection will be key to controlling the spread of the virus and limiting the additional waves of the pandemic. 

For these individuals to clean—and to not pollute the surfaces and buildings they are meant to protect—they need training. They also need training to protect themselves. 

During this period, we can expect to see a swell of new cleaning service providers. Many people who have been displaced from current jobs in the hospitality or foodservice industries may find themselves working in a position where they’re being asked to clean in a commercial environment for the first time. 

We’ve seen way too many headlines highlighting cleaning workers who are concerned because they don’t understand the routes of transmission or how they could become infected. Too many people who are asked to use new disinfectants and don’t have training to do so. Too many people who aren’t equipped with the right personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect their hands and faces from exposure. 

We need to reverse this trend and make sure ALL cleaning workers have the knowledge and training they need to clean safely and protect themselves.

If you’re new to cleaning, we’ve pulled together a checklist of things you should know before you start working.

This is not meant to replace any existing training programs, but rather serve as a supplement. Our hope is to help provide a resource for those individuals who may not receive any training from their employers. If that’s you, we’re here for you. Please feel free to reach out with any questions about what you can do to protect yourself during this time.

Spring Cleaning Your Custodial Closets: A Checklist

The Spring Equinox starts in just a few hours and depending on where you live, the daffodils might be starting to show off their pretty yellow heads. It’s been a pretty nasty winter around the country, so for many, the flowers and other signs of spring are a welcome sight!

In addition to adding a bit of color to our lives, the Vernal Equinox also marks the start of spring cleaning activities around the world. From homes to offices, people eagerly purge their homes of dirt and clutter that’s no longer of use (we’re looking at you, floppy discs!).

Where did the ritual of spring cleaning start? There’s no clear answer on this. Some say it dates back to the Jewish practice of thoroughly cleaning the home in advance of Passover. Others say that it traces back to the Persian New Year, or Nowruz (pronounced “no-rooz”), where Iranians clean everything from drapes to furniture before kicking off a 13-day celebration of dinners, family visits and reflections for the year ahead (sign us up!). 

For cleaning professionals, spring cleaning offers an opportunity to reset. We talked a little while ago about how the (OS1) System can help a professional cleaning operation “tidy up,” and Ben will be presenting next week at the Clean Buildings Expo on “How and Why Remediating Your Cleaning Program Works”, but even just a few simple steps can help you spring clean your department to make it safer and more productive. One of these steps is focusing on custodial closets.

Cleaning out the Closets

Aside from the challenges everyone talks about — labor, pressure to do more with less, etc. — storage for all the “stuff” associated with cleaning is a big issue for many people responsible for managing custodial operations. Cleaning workers should have storage areas on every floor, and possibly more depending on the footprint of the building. 

Safe chemical handling starts with safe chemical storage. Here are a few things you can do to “spring clean” your chemical storage areas.

But as we continue exploring dangers associated with poor chemical handling processes, where we store cleaning chemicals should be an important area of focus. This includes cleaning out these areas. 

Secured storage is critical, in order to limit access to building occupants and others who lack the knowledge and training to properly to handle chemicals. Held in one central bulk storage area, the chemicals should be kept clean, neat and sorted by hazard classification (e.g. don’t store flammable chemicals with oxidizers). 

A few good things to items to add to your spring cleaning checklist include:

  • Remove any cleaning chemicals from upper shelves or high areas where they might be  difficult to reach
  • Make sure all products are tightly sealed
  • Never store dry products atop wet products
  • Make sure any liquid acid and liquid chlorine products are stored away from one another
  • Conduct an audit of keys so you know exactly who has access to storage areas
  • Make sure your list of cleaning chemicals is up-to-date
  • Safely dispose of any expired chemicals
  • Audit what chemicals are in use and dispose of any chemicals that are not in use
  • Make sure all of your Safety Data Sheets are up-to-date and organized—which you can easily do with our SDS “Beyond Compliance” Wall Mounted Station!

Happy Spring, and Spring cleaning!

Why Are Chemical Handling Accidents Still Happening?

During our recent Symposium, Flynt Belk of Workers’ Compensation Fund Insurance shared the haunting story of Stefan Golab, an immigrant from Poland who in 1983, died at his place of employment, Film Recovery Systems. A former steel construction worker in Poland, Golab had only worked at the factory outside of Chicago for a few months where his job was to reclaim silver from used photographic film. 

On the morning he died, Golab drank warm milk, hoping it would settle his stomach. He’d been experiencing headaches and vomiting. He couldn’t read English or Spanish and while it was likely he’d seen the skull and crossbones located on the barrels of cyanide, that meant “high voltage” back in Poland, so he wasn’t aware of the risks in his job. 

In a landmark court case, a judge found the top executives of Film Recovery Systems and its parent corporation responsible for Golab’s death. The verdict read that the company had exposed workers to “totally unsafe” working conditions with no training, warning or safeguards to protect them. 

This is the catalyst for OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard (1910.1200) in place today and later the Right-to-Know act. Right-to-Know refers to workers’ rights to information about chemicals in their workplaces.

“This is not the case of someone taking a gun and placing it to the head of a victim and shooting him,” the judge explained at sentencing. “What we have here is the kind of case where you take a bomb and you put it in an airplane, and you turn around and runaway somewhere, and a time bomb is ticking off and ticking off, and . . . all of a sudden, on February 10, 1983, the time bomb went off, and Stefan Golab is dead.” 

More than two decades later, that bomb is still ticking. The EPA estimates that as many as 2.8 million people in the cleaning industry are exposed to dangerous cleaning chemicals each day.

Required training under OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard (1910.1200) includes understanding:

  • The health and physical hazards of cleaning chemicals
  • How to properly handle, use and store the products
  • What type of personal protective equipment to wear
  • How to use the hazard information, including labels and Safety Data Sheets
  • Procedures to follow in the event of a spill

This standard requires worker training before the use of any new chemicals, but no refresher training is required.

Wait… what? 

That means if a custodian may receive training on potential hazards associated with a chemical when they are initially hired, but if they stay at the same employer for several years, they are not legally required to demonstrate any understanding of how to properly handle, use and store chemicals after that point. 

Do you remember everything you learned in your first week on the job? In the flurry of new faces, paperwork and training, there’s a lot to remember. 

Sadly, incidents related to inappropriate use or storage of cleaning chemicals continue to happen all-too often. 

Earlier this year, five children were taken to the hospital after washing their hands with a cleaning chemical that was accidentally placed in the soap dispensers. In August, three workers in a cheese factory were treated at a local hospital after two cleaning solutions were accidentally mixed together. Just last week in Lexington, Ky., a janitor was burned while trying to clean chemicals with a towel. 

Fortunately, most employers take precautions to prevent deaths like Stefan Golab’s from happening. But we still have much work to do when it comes to training anyone with exposure to cleaning chemicals, as injuries are still happening. 

To help organizations comply with the ANSI/SI BSR SI-0001 American National Standard for Safe Use of Cleaning Chemicals which will go out for public review soon, we’re launching a new chemical handling workbook and online certificate program. Because accidents are still happening and every worker has the right to a safe workplace.