Exposure to Chemical and Biological Hazards
What are the risks?
Cleaning activities cover a broad range of tasks, from sweeping and vacuuming to cleaning of surfaces, equipment and disposal of waste. All of these can present a risk of exposure to hazardous substances in the form of chemicals or biological materials. This is dependent on the cleaning agents being used and the environment in which the cleaning tasks are carried out. The following sections explain where the potential hazards might be.
Chemical and biological hazards in cleaning
Many different chemicals are used in cleaning agents to facilitate removal of dust and dirt, disinfection and maintenance of surfaces. Exposure depends on the quantities used, frequency, manner of application and the efficiency of any ventilation during the cleaning process. Many cleaning agents are sprayed, which can cause breathing problems if used without adequate ventilation and there is exposure to the dirt and dust particles in the air that must be considered. It is worth remembering that ventilation and air-conditioning systems are often turned off or are on low power during out-of-hours periods, which is when cleaning often takes place.
Skin contact is the other main hazard to be considered, from the cleaning materials themselves and from the dirt and other substances that are being removed. Lastly, there is the risk of accidental ingestion – often from poor hygiene practices such as inadequate hand washing.
Cleaning products are usually mixtures of chemicals that can cause irritation to the respiratory system of dermatological problems. There is usually an “active” ingredient and others such as perfumes. Surfactants are one of these active ingredients to be found in most products and are a major cause of skin complaints reported by cleaners. Other active ingredients may be acids, bases (alkalis), disinfectants, solvents or substances called “complexing agents” that form compounds with other materials to aid the cleaning process. Some acids, such as hydrochloric acid, are often used in toilet cleaners in concentrations that are very hazardous to the eyes and skin. Very strong alkalis are to be found in oven, grill and tableware cleaners and are highly corrosive.
Exposure can also occur from volatile organic compounds (VOCs), although the dangers are much lower due to the small quantities typically used and the short duration.
It is important to note that there are chemical substances present in the dirt, dust and other particles being removed during the cleaning process and these can all pose hazards.
Common additives used in cleaning products are perfumes and fragrances to mask the unpleasant chemical smells or odours in the air. Some of these are reported as allergens and some can form secondary products when in contact with pollutants in the air to create other chemical compounds that can be breathed in.
Research is being undertaken to see if this is responsible for some cases of work-related asthma, particularly with an increase in the use of more natural products that use pine oil for example.
How can I be exposed?
Dermal exposure via the hands is the major issue and many cleaning products break down the natural protective layer of oils and greases in the skin to enter the body systems. The same can happen with prolonged exposure to water and can cause dermatitis. Ironically, the use of non-permeable gloves over extended periods also has the same effect as “wet” work as the skin is not able to breathe. The use of barrier creams and skin care have been shown to be very effective in reducing the risk of dermatitis.
The risk here is both from the cleaning agents used and from the dust or dirt particles that can become airborne. There is an additional risk from secondary products that are formed by reactions between the cleaning product and substances present in the work environment being cleaned. Cleaning agents containing volatile chemicals are the main concern, but also where these are mixed; for example, mixing bleach with ammonia or acids such as toilet cleaner will release chlorine gas, which has acute respiratory effects – often serious enough to require medical attention.
What about biological hazards?
In addition to the chemical hazards, there is also the possibility of exposure to biological hazards such as micro-organisms, bacteria, viruses and moulds. This is most likely when cleaning washrooms and toilet facilities and generally is caused by materials becoming airborne in sprays or droplets. Moulds and other fungal matter in particular can be released when emptying dust collectors, filters or vacuum cleaners. These may lead to allergic problems, asthma or other respiratory diseases.
What needs to be done?
There are legal requirement to assess the risks to cleaners from the products they use and from the cleaning processes. Good work procedures, provision of the right personal protective equipment (PPE) and health monitoring will minimise the risks to acceptable levels. A basic understanding of the hazards presented by the substances being used will go a long way to reducing personal exposure risks and keep workers safe.