Exposure to Chemical and Biological Hazards
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 Chemical and Biological Hazards. 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.
Exposure to Chemical and Biological hazards during cleaning
Cleaning agents for removing dust, dirt, disinfection and maintenance of surfaces use many different chemicals. Exposure depends on the quantities used, frequency, manner of application and the efficiency of any ventilation during the cleaning process. Spraying cleaning agents may cause breathing problems if there is inadequate ventilation. There is exposure to the dirt and dust particles in the air that must also be considered. Further note 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 may be a hazard from the cleaning materials themselves or 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.
Exposure to chemicals in cleaning products
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 an active ingredient in most cleaning products. They are a major cause of skin complaints by cleaners. Other active ingredients may be acids, bases (alkalis), disinfectants, solvents or substances called “complexing agents”. These form compounds with other materials to aid the cleaning process. Toilet cleaners may contain hydrochloric acid which is very hazardous to the eyes and skin. Oven, grill and tableware cleaners use strong alkalis and are highly corrosive.
Exposure can also occur from volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The dangers are much lower due to the small quantities typically used and the short duration.
Note chemical substances may be present in the dirt, dust and other particles removed during cleaning 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 allergens and may form secondary products when in contact with pollutants in the air to create other chemical compounds that can be breathed in.
Research to see if this is responsible for some cases of work-related asthma is in progress. The increase in the use of more natural products eg pine oil may also be an issue.
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. Using barrier creams and skin care are very effective in reducing the risk of dermatitis.
Risks may result from the use of cleaning agents from the dust or dirt particles that can become airborne. Also secondary products may form by reaction between the cleaning product and substances present in the work environment. Cleaning agents containing volatile chemicals are the main concern. Mixing of agents eg bleach with ammonia or acids such as toilet cleaner will release chlorine gas. This 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.