Get clued up on chemicals

13 April 2015

Chemicals can be extremely dangerous and when used incorrectly, can have devastating consequences. Arco’s product and procurement manager Jeff Snee offers guidance on handling chemicals in the cleaning industry

A chemical is not just something used by scientists in laboratories. Most people use chemicals in their home every day and many use them daily as part of their job. When handled properly chemicals are safe to use, however, accidents do happen and when they do, the results can be life-changing. 

In December 2013, the operator of an Essex leisure centre was fined £45,000 after a two and a half year-old boy suffered severe burns after slipping and falling onto a recently cleaned drain cover. The drain had been cleaned with a cleaner containing sodium hydroxide – a highly corrosive chemical used to dissolve grease and hair. The chemical burnt through the toddler’s swimming shorts and left him with third degree, full skin thickness alkaline burns to his buttocks and thigh. The little boy was treated in hospital for 10 days and required a skin graft.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that the leisure centre had failed to implement a safe system of work in place for cleaning this type of drain. The company also failed to properly assess its use of chemicals and provide staff with proper training. Simple guidance on the important issue of chemical safety can help ensure that accidents like this are prevented:

Clarifying COSHH and REACH regulations

When specifically working with chemicals, employers need to comply with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regulations. These laws are in place to help to prevent or reduce exposure to hazardous substances.

Together with COSHH, employers also need to be aware of the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation & restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulations. Like COSHH, REACH aims to ‘provide a high level of protection of human health and the environment from the use of chemicals’, however the regulations also ‘make the people who place chemicals on the market (e.g. manufacturers and importers) responsible for understanding and managing the risks associated with their use’. 

Part of REACH’s strategy has been to introduce a new European regulation on the classification, labelling and packaging of substances and mixtures - The CLP Regulation. The CLP Regulation came into force in all EU member states, including the UK, on 20 January 2010 and has adopted the Globally Harmonised System (GHS) on the classification and labelling of chemicals. This means that chemicals will be classified, labelled and packaged in the same way worldwide. 

The CLP Regulation is being phased in through a transitional period which runs until 1 June 2015. After this date, some particularly hazardous substances will be reclassified and may be taken out of use altogether. To ensure that companies are still compliant, all employers need to re-assess their current use of chemicals - making sure that products regularly being used are still classed as safe under the new legislation. 

Assessing the risk

COSHH states that ‘every employer shall ensure that the exposure of his employees to substances hazardous to health is either prevented or, where this is not reasonably practicable, adequately controlled.’ In order to do this, a full risk assessment is required. 

A risk assessment is not just a paper exercise. It is about understanding the hazards and taking all possible measures to control the risks within the workplace. Only after all control measures have been tried and the risk remains should personal protective equipment (PPE) be used.

Common industry hazards

Common hazards that arise in the cleaning industry include; skin irritation, dermatitis, disfiguring burns, eye injury or blindness. These injuries and illnesses are either caused by a corrosive chemical product coming into contact with skin; through accidental splash-back or through poor hand care. By using personal protective equipment, employees can help to reduce these kinds of occupational accidents and help to keep the workplace safe. 

Essential products

Goggles are fundamental in helping to protect the eyes from accidental splash-back that could occur when mixing chemicals such as bleach. For goggles that offer high level chemical protection at an affordable price, Arco Acetate Clear Goggles are available. Not all goggles are chemical splash resistant however, so employers should double check that whatever eyewear is being used is fit for purpose. PVC splash proof aprons can also be worn to help protect the body and clothing.

Wearing disposable gloves will offer a good level of hand protection to employees who are regularly mixing and working with low strength chemicals. Gloves such as the Arco Household Grip Gloves have been specifically designed with cleaning professionals in mind and are designed to be lightweight, dextrous and durable for everyday use. The gloves are latex free and also have added grip on the inside helping to stop the gloves from moving around on the hand and causing friction.

Unfortunately, whilst wearing gloves will protect the hands from chemical burns, regular use will play havoc with your skin. Heat becomes trapped within the glove which causes hands to sweat. Sweating and over-washing of hands will eventually inflame the skin and cause skin conditions such as occupational dermatitis. To help prevent conditions like this developing, it is essential that cleaning operatives practice good hand care and use protective skin creams regularly.

Arco has developed the Arco Three-Step Industrial Skincare System to help defend the skin from occupational skin disorders. The Pre-Work Cream protects the skin from contaminants, including chemicals, oils and greases, and also eases the cleansing process. The secondary stage is a gentle hand cleanser that works with the Pre-Work Cream to effectively remove contaminants that are present on the hands. The third step is the After Work Cream that restores skin that has been weakened by environmental and mechanical factors. The cream works by replacing moisture and lipids, supplementing the skin’s natural healing process.  

Averting danger

Working with chemicals does not have to be dangerous. By understanding the regulations, taking the right preventative steps to minimise contact with damaging agents and adopting an appropriate skin safety regime, the risk of occupational illness and injury can be severely reduced. Through taking action today, employees, visitors and other personnel working in your business will undoubtedly have the best chance at going home safe at the end of the day.