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Heidi Wilcox

Ryan Balderia was 32 years old, married less than a year and had a 3-month-old son. Ryan was also the general manager of the Buffalo Wild Wings in Burlington, Massachusetts, where an employee’s misuse of sodium hypochlorite lead to over 10 hospitalizations and Ryan’s tragic passing. 

The incident took place approximately 15 miles from where I live, and although I know it isn’t true, in some ways, I feel like I let Ryan down. I am an expert in green cleaning, chemical toxicity and hazard processes and procedures in the commercial cleaning industry. I didn’t work with Buffalo Wild Wings and I didn’t know Ryan, but I do know that the supply chain and system of how people buy cleaning products is broken and it needs to be fixed. 

The question is why did Buffalo Wild Wings have an acid descaler and chlorine bleach in the building? We don’t have particularly hard water in this area of the state. Why were the two products even close to each other, and why did the worker who started to clean the floors grab these two products? We know the answer: lack of training, lack of communication, lack of purchasers knowing what they are buying, no vendor or distributor help with training, corporate policies around purchasing and supply chain issues. 

Reports say the two products accidentally came into contact with each other, but I am skeptical. The bottles didn’t accidentally open, spill and mix. Someone made a choice to grab them and use them either near each other or together because they had no training, wanted to clean the floor and get out of work. 

Ryan, in an effort to protect his employees, tried to move the products out of the building. In the process, he suffered irreparable damage to his respiratory system and lungs, essentially drowning to death due to chlorine gas exposure. 

Due to one small act of not understanding the chemicals that were in the building, a man died and 13 others were hospitalized with the possibility of permanent respiratory issues. Meanwhile, those responsible for purchasing the chemicals and training staff on their use will have to live with the guilt of what happened.

As an industry, we all are responsible for making sure this doesn’t happen again. If it is too confusing or hard to deal with the hazards of this industry and make responsible decisions, offer education and training and do the right thing, then get out of the industry. Stop making money off the backs of others while they get sick and die. 

I’m angry, disgusted, sad and outraged. I won’t let this go. This is a call to action to do more and deal with the hard issues in our industry. I tell every client I work with that they are responsible for well-trained people to produce, handle and be a steward for your products throughout the life cycle and supply chain. I have told trade associations, manufacturers and distributors to do more. When will we? 

Ryan didn’t have to die. How many more people in this industry will be permanently harmed and or die due to our apathetic, “it’s not my problem” attitude? 

Heidi Wilcox is an applied microbiologist, presenter, educator and trainer in the cleaning industry. She is also the president and founder of Wilcox EVS, a consultancy specializing in cleaning and disinfecting for health. Working in the worlds of science, engineering and commercial cleaning, Heidi examines challenges within facilities and provides solutions to streamline processes and protocols. She advocates for reduced use of synthetic chemicals, which will also decrease hazards and exposures to staff and building occupants. Heidi has been integral in working with facilities to set up proactive infection/mitigation protocols for infection control.