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Safety plays a huge role in building service contractors' choices of cleaners and disinfectants. Cleaning chemicals in general are less toxic than they used to be, especially those certified as green, and that contributes to healthier janitors and building occupants as well as a decreased environmental impact.
But chemical safety as a whole applies to much more than the direct effects of cleaning products while they are being used by front-line workers. Surely, chemicals are much safer to handle and use than they used to be — however, they are still chemicals and have the potential to leak and be improperly mixed, creating fume and fire hazards.
BSCs need to be diligent about enforcing storage regulations, disposal guidelines, Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) availability and label-reading. Training, re-training and enforcement through inspections are integral to ensuring safety standards are adhered to.
Education and Training
From the day an employee starts, BSCs are driving home the safety message with not only chemical handling and personal protective equipment education, but also guiding them about how to properly read an MSDS.
"As soon as they start with the company, that's one of the first things they start on, is label reading, chemical usage and MSDS," says Jill Koch, vice president of Vista Building Services Inc. in Central Point, Ore. "They actually have to pass a test for them to know what a sheet is, how to read it, the whole works, before they actually go in the field so all of that is part of their initiation when they're first hired here before they ever even get into an account."
Not all BSCs require employees to pass a test; some say re-training is the key — and you can only hope that repetition will help workers deal with a real incident if it comes up. Inspections done at account locations by K-Tech Kleening in Weston, Wis., involve making sure all MSDS books are in proper locations.
"We have one in every single account we have, one in every vehicle," says Scott Klemm, operations manager. "That is at the forefront. Employees, through the training process, are showed what they are, where they are and how to read them."
Neil Matthews, vice president of operations at PMM Companies in Rockville, Md., compares the process to the safety demonstration prior to takeoff on an airplane. Everyone thinks they understand the message, but a real problem or emergency is the true test of employees' knowledge and preparedness.
"That's what it's like in our industry — you just hope that you tell them enough times that everything kicks in," Matthews says.
Labeling is also a big component of chemical safety, as it ensures that chemicals are not mistakenly being used for the wrong purpose or application. Not only can the wrong chemical damage or ruin a customer's facility, but it can also sicken building occupants if used in tandem with other chemicals.
Labels for bottles of diluted solution are provided by manufacturers, and many BSCs have a color-coded OSHA-standard labeling system in addition to that.
For K-tech, the labeling system makes it easier for employees to understand what chemicals they're using — and the consistency in chemicals and labeling across the board means that if an employee is filling in at a facility they're not used to cleaning, they won't be confused by a different system.
"Labeling all chemicals is critical for the safety of others and making sure they are not being used for the wrong purpose," says Roger Ford, director of operations for Team MJV in Lafayette, Ind. "Labels are usually provided free of charge from your supplier. Make sure you have a surplus of labels and enforce the rule that all bottles must be properly labeled."
Most BSCs will toss out any bottle that is not labeled, and take the opportunity to re-train employees on proper labeling.
Employees also need to understand proper storage and disposal techniques that will keep janitor closets free of hazards, and will abide by local, state and federal regulations.
Proper storage of cleaners and disinfectant in janitor closets is important from not only an organizational standpoint, but also for the safety of janitors and building occupants.
Everything should be stored on shelves with chemicals no higher than eye level, Matthews says, so that labels can be easily read and the danger of bottles and containers falling on a janitor is minimized.
Containers should be tightly closed and free of damage such as holes or tears.
"Number one, you want to make sure that if ever a container leaks, that you contain the leak," Matthews says. "So in order to do that, we store them in small containers with absorbent cloth at the bottom so if one of the bottles does have a leak then it's contained to a given area."
Another consideration is whether chemicals are combustible, creating a fire hazard.
Ford says many times when his company is bidding on new accounts and representatives are conducting site visits, they find chemicals placed on top of water heaters. That can cause a fire, he says. Janitor closets also need to be well-ventilated.
Using green cleaning chemicals puts some BSCs at ease about the toxicity of the chemicals they're storing — but the environmental aspect of green, of reducing packaging, has resulted in some cases in very concentrated chemicals being stored in janitor closets.
A concentrated chemical poses more safety risks to janitors than when it is in its diluted state, and can also be more damaging to surfaces and more volatile if mixed with other chemicals or concentrates. BSCs should not be lax about storage regulations just because a chemical is labeled or certified green.
Disposing of chemicals and of product packaging is the final safety step that cannot be overlooked. Governing bodies, from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to local municipalities, have chemical disposal regulations that are taken into account along with any directives from the MSDS.
If the MSDS does not provide adequate instructions as to proper disposal, contact a local municipality for further advice.
Many BSCs collect and recycle empty spray bottles and other chemical containers, or reuse them.
Though cleaners and disinfectants have become safer for people and for the environment, BSCs should remain vigilant about chemical storage and disposal, as safety issues don't become less relevant even if the products have improved.