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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.

The Universal Language of Cleaning

Language. It’s one of the most beautiful yet challenging aspects of training custodial workers. Because many cleaners have either recently immigrated to the U.S. or are first-generation citizens, our trainers and auditors encounter a variety of languages in the field—Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Burmese, French and Polish, just to name a few. Within those languages, we encounter even more sub-languages; for example, Cubans in Florida speak a different dialect of Spanish than Guatemalans. The French spoken by Haitians is different than French spoken in Montreal. You can imagine the challenge this presents during training or when we create training materials for custodial workers.

One might think that because many immigrants tend to live in close-knit communities with others from their same region, that they may not want or need  to learn English when they come to the U.S.; however, research points to the opposite. In the book “Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society,” researchers found that 99 percent of immigrant students studied felt that English was important for them to learn. Many immigrants want to learn English not only to assist with social interactions, but because they feel it’s critical for success—another study reveals that 85 percent of immigrants say that it is hard to get a good job or do well in the U.S. without learning English.

So how do we communicate with workers while also providing them with tools to educate and empower them? We do it with the language of (OS1ian). If you’ve ever spent any time in a hospital listening to doctors and nurses converse, you know that they have their own set of terms which can make it sound like they are speaking gibberish to anyone not in the medical profession. Similarly, lawyers communicate using “legalese”—technical jargon that fill legal documents. So, we asked, why not develop a professional language for the cleaning industry?

Just a few of the key terms a Restroom Specialist must learn to speak (OS1)ian.

(OS1)ian — a universal language for the cleaning industry— was developed based on specialist duties and identifyed key terms associated with each position. Each position has approximately 45 basic words and 10 to 15 terms that a specialist must be able to use in their day-to-day operations. For example, the vocabulary of a vacuum specialist includes vac station, paddle tool and inspect plug. A light-duty specialist will learn terms like wastebasket, barrel and fill line.

To assist with literacy, specialists complete an (OS1)ian worksheet in Boot Camp with the key terms provided in greyscale. The intent isn’t to test or trick workers, but to help them develop both written and oral proficiency of the terms. As the cleaner adopts new responsibilities, their vocabulary will expand to include as many as 250 phrases, helping them develop a working English vocabulary.

Before rolling (OS1ian) out, we tested it with a third-shift crew at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who spoke Chinese, Russian and Romanian. It was met with an overwhelming reception—finally, we were all able to speak the same language. In years since, we’ve found that using a standardized vocabulary benefits workers with dyslexia, functional illiteracy and cognitive perception disorders.

When everyone speaks the same language, cleaning processes and systems are safer and more efficient —there are fewer misunderstandings and mistakes. But the benefits extend well beyond the workplace—learning (OS1ian) empowers workers personally as well. It provides them with common set of English terms to set them on a path of career success as they create a new life in the U.S.

The limits of my language are the limits of my world.

‒Ludwig Wittgenstein