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6 Easy Ways to Prevent Accidents from Cleaning Chemicals

After last week’s incident at a Buffalo Wild Wings when a young manager died following exposure to toxic fumes from a floor cleaner, we’ve received several calls and emails from organizations looking to prevent a similar situation from happening in their own businesses. 

Updates from the original story show that the manager died and at least 13 other individuals in the restaurant became sick after two cleaning products — Super 8 and Scale Kleen — were “accidentally” mixed.

As most cleaning professionals know, mixing bleaches and acids is a no-no, as bleach contains sodium hypochlorite, it can create a dangerous—and sometimes fatal — chlorine gas. 

In this incident, Scale Kleen, an acid based solution, was applied to the floor. Later, Super 8 was applied to the floor which mixed with the Scale Clean creating a reaction that “turned green and started to bubble,” the local fire chief told NBC. The resulting fumes killed the manager who tried to squeegee the substance from the floor and sickened others in the vicinity.

While some have called for less “dangerous” chemicals to be used in commercial settings, we need to do a better job of training the people who use cleaning chemicals. Why? Because incidents like this can happen with household cleaning products. Even the most basic things can cause issues. Bleach (sodium hypochlorite), Ammonia (glass cleaner) and Peroxide (used as an alternative to a disinfectant) can cause reactions that damage surfaces —or even worse—death.

One of the most common OSHA violations is the lack of worker training and understanding on common SDS symbols.

Here are six easy ways to minimize chemical accidents such as these:

  1. Never mix chemicals. Need we say more? 
  2. Use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) when using any hazardous substances. This includes gloves, goggles, boots, face shields, aprons and any other material that can protect the user’s hands, eyes, face and skin from contact with the chemical. The PPE should be made of material specifically designed to resist penetration by the particular chemical being used.
  3. Read the Safety Data Sheet (SDS). In addition to listing the name, toxicity and hazard, the SDS also provides critical information about the chemical’s composition and physical characteristics. OSHA requires this information be available for employees to read and understand. 
  4. Follow instructions. Manufacturers include specific instructions for use of cleaning chemicals, which includes dilution ratios and where the product can safely be used. Read and take the time to understand these instructions before using any cleaning product.
  5. Use ventilation. The ongoing circulation of fresh air is critical in keeping concentration diluted and within safe usage levels. 
  6. Conduct ongoing training. Training—and the documentation of training—is critical when it comes to making sure workers safely handle cleaning chemicals. From online to classroom style training, there are a variety of resources to educate workers on how to properly handle cleaning chemicals.

When Benjamin Franklin made the famous statement, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” in 1736, he was encouraging the citizens of Philadelphia to be vigilant about fire awareness and prevention. 

He encouraged the formation of a brigade specially trained to fight fires, which led to the formation of the Union Fire Company later that year. He also urged that chimney sweeps should be licensed by the city and be responsible for their work. 

Thanks to his advocacy, Philadelphia became one of the city’s safest from fire damage. 

It is our hope that even today—almost 300 years later—we can look to the wisdom offered in Franklin’s axiom to prevent future chemical accidents from occurring, improving the safety of everyone who handles cleaning chemicals. Taking steps now to prevent an accident from occurring could quite possibly save a life.

Safety Month Continued: The Dangers of Handling Chemicals [INFOGRAPHIC]

We hear the stories too often: someone improperly mixes cleaning chemicals, which leads to a strange odor. Everyone evacuates the building. People are taken to the hospital for precautionary measures, but in a best-case-scenario, there’s no injury.

But in some cases, there are injuries. Like the chemical mixing incident where an Idaho woman drank iced tea mixed with a cleaning solution and nearly died.

The EPA reports that as many as 2.8 million people in the cleaning industry are exposed to potentially dangerous chemicals each day. And if their job requires that they handle chemicals, it’s up to the employer to make sure they know what they’re doing.

OSHA’s revised Hazard Communication Standard (HCS 2012) requires organizations to provide training on the following:

  • Methods and observations to detect the presence or release of a hazardous chemical in the work area.
  • Measures employees can take to protect themselves from these hazards.
  • Details of the hazard communication program developed by the employer, including an explanation of the labels received on shipped containers and workplace labeling system, the SDS and how employees can use the appropriate hazard information.

While the new standard requires training when new personnel assigned to work in a specific area or when a new health or physical hazard is in place, employers can further reduce risk of an incident resulting from improper chemical handling by providing ongoing training and making sure key personnel have demonstrated their understanding of key handling protocols.

Handling chemicals can be extremely dangerous when people don’t know what they’re doing. We’ve put together an infographic to share at your next safety meeting so cleaners understand the potential risks and take the time to understand best practices for handling.

Provo City Schools Research Part III: The Incredible Results of a Systematic Approach to Cleaning

Note: If you’ve yet to read parts one and two of this series, you’ll want to check them out before reading this post. This series is based upon the research of Dr. Jeffery Campbell as presented in his paper, “Clean Schools Initiative: Provo City School District Case Study.”

Like many other aging academic buildings located throughout the U.S., Dixon Middle School has welcomed several generations of students through its doors. Built in 1931, the school has been renovated over the years to accommodate more students — it is now three times as large as its original structure. But it had issues. Not only was the school the oldest in the Provo City School District in Utah, it was also considered the dirtiest.

Cleaning-related challenges weren’t isolated just to this school, however. The entire school district struggled with uncontrolled cleaning costs, a lack of accountability with custodial staff and schools not getting cleaned.

To address these challenges, the district decided to pilot the (OS1) cleaning system. Previous users of the system had found it helped control costs, improve indoor environmental quality and improve the health of the building occupants, so they were eager to give it a try.

Dixon Middle School: Before

Before implementing the program, a baseline audit was conducted of more than 1,242 janitorial-related items throughout the school. This included a review of janitorial positions, management programs, purchasing processes and training. The purpose of the audit was to offer a reference point to measure progress. Dixon received an initial audit score of six percent.

The auditors found that the school had lacked in most areas related to its cleaning program, including supplies, organization, training and processes used.

Custodian job descriptions were insufficient, cleaning tools were broken and dirty, unmarked cleaning bottles littered janitorial closets, dirty mops revealed the same color as the bathroom tile, pipes in the restrooms showed rust and discoloration from the use of improper cleaning chemicals and custodians were generally apathetic. This last point was evidenced by the “countdown to retirement” calendar located in the head custodian’s office.

Additional issues included:

  • No career track or incentive for advancement in place for janitors.
  • No standardization of products or processes throughout the district—each school operated independently without communication.
  • Hoarding of cleaning tools and supplies.
  • No chain of command or accountability for janitors—the head custodian didn’t know who he reported to.
  • Raises were based on the length of employment rather than performance.
  • Activity was more reactive than proactive, meaning custodians spent more time responding to the complaints of teachers rather than focusing on improving the general cleanliness of the campus.
  • Custodians had no guidelines for purchasing chemicals, other than what suggestions vendors offered.

Dixon Middle School: After

A year following the implementation of (OS1), a standardized cleaning program, Dixon’s audit score improved from six percent to 80 percent. That score has continued to increase in the years since.

The changes have been drastic, including an overall improvement in cleanliness, better morale amongst the teachers and custodial workers, improved health and wellness of building occupants, cost savings and more.

Some of the specific results include:

Better Health: One teacher who suffered severe migraines causing her to have to call off from work noted that she had not had a migraine or blackout incident since the new cleaning program was implemented (she also switched to use of green cleaning chemicals at home). She cited fewer allergy issues as well.

Improved Safety: Where containers of bleach and unlabeled chemical bottles once littered closets throughout the building, the school has transitioned to a new chemical management system. A single locked cabinet holds all the chemicals and supplies used on a daily basis. With thorough training and better controls, this has substantially improved the safety of custodians and students.

A Better School: Improving the cleanliness of the school has led to a domino effect throughout the school. Walls were painted to better reflect the cleanliness of the school, teachers became more organized and tidy and students took more pride in their school. Once a major issue, the amount of graffiti at Dixon has virtually been eliminated.

Awards: In 2011, Dixon Middle School received the “Best New Program Award” in the K-12 Category of the Green Cleaning Award for Schools & Universities, sponsored by American School & University magazine, the Green Cleaning Network and Healthy Schools Campaign.

The Dixon Middle School pilot team is recognized with the Outstanding Cleaning Worker Award.

Each of their pilot team members was honored as an Outstanding Cleaning Worker at the 2011 Cleaning Industry Awards Banquet.

Reducing Costs: While it’s tough to say exactly just how much the change to (OS1) has saved the school (the school didn’t keep purchasing records and funds were drawn from several different budgets), the new system has reduced the average monthly chemical cost to $80.29, making the chemical cost per cleanable square foot $0.00076. When adding in labor and other costs, the estimated cost to clean per square foot is roughly $.77.

This is substantially lower than projected costs from IFMA, which estimate the average   cost per square-foot for cleaning educational facilities to be $1.36.

Improved Morale: The head custodian said the experience changed his life.

“I had been doing [custodial management] for 12-13 years, and it was the first time that someone had approached me and said, “You are important, the job that you do is important. The people that work with you are important and we need to recognize them for that and give them the training, the tools and the equipment that show that your job is really a profession.”

With these incredible results in hand, the Provo City School District made the decision to roll out the program to the rest of its schools. Clean schools are better, higher-performing schools. And when you have data that helps you measure the impact of your cleaning program, including the benefit to teachers, students, administrators and the overall longevity of the building, the decision makes itself.