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Protecting against chemical health risks to cleaners

16 July 2018

Hygiene is vital in our homes and workplaces, but the ways in which people clean could damage their lung health and breathing – as reported in Cleaning Matters earlier this year. What lies behind this and how can professional cleaners and employers protect against it? Michael Edwards, a trained biomedical scientist and health and safety writer at IOSH, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, explains some of the latest research and how we can guard against respiratory risk

Can too much cleaning be bad for your health?

Cleaning chemicals used at home and in workplaces every day are often taken for granted. A recent study conducted by the University of Bergen in Norway showed a clear correlation between the use of liquid- and spray-cleaning chemicals and a degradation of lung function of women (especially) involved in cleaning at work and in the home. 

The 20-year study found that women cleaning at home or working as occupational cleaners had accelerated decline in maximum Forced Vital Capacity (FVC) and maximum Forced Expired Volume in one second (FEV1), measured by spirometry. Decline in both measurements indicates decreased lung function in the people affected.

What causes this?

Most cleaning agents have an irritative effect on the mucous membranes of the airways. Irritation of the airways (the respiratory system) leads to inflammation, reducing the volume of the affected area, that in turn can have a direct effect on how well you can breathe. 

This may only be a short-term effect; however, the study indicates that repetitive exposure for low-grade irritating cleaning agents could cause longer-term or permanent changes to the airways. 

Most cleaning chemicals used today are either bleach or ammonia based. Concentrations of bleach or ammonia vary, usually depending on use in a domestic, commercial or industrial environment, ranging from approximately 5% in domestic applications, to around 15% for more commercial or industrial applications. 

Certain ammonia-based cleaning substances (quaternary ammonium compounds) are also known to have a sensitising effect on the airways. 

Bleach (sodium hypochlorite) in liquid form does not have an irritating effect on the respiratory system, but if exposed to reactive substances such as acids and ammonia it can liberate chlorine gas and chloramine. Both can cause irritation to the respiratory system, with chlorine gas being toxic and chloramine being corrosive in higher concentrations. 

Bleach can also create chloroform when mixed with certain alcohols (for example ethanol). Chloroform is also toxic when breathed in. Other substances, such as low concentrations of sodium hydroxide, are also found in cleaning chemicals that can have an irritating effect on the airways.

How cleaning chemicals are commonly used

At home, cleaning chemicals are normally in an already-diluted form, usually a spray or liquid state. However, in commercial and industrial environments, it becomes more common to dilute neat or higher-concentration cleaning chemicals; then the diluted substance is applied to surfaces. 

Where cleaning chemicals are used also matters. Well-ventilated areas such as open offices and warehouses need to be treated differently to confined spaces such as cupboards, containment vessels and enclosed walkways.

Many cleaning chemicals are used by cleaners in workplaces outside of normal working hours. This could lead to a lack of supervision. Combined with a lack of training, knowledge and perhaps a need to hurry might potentially lead to cleaners inadvertently mixing incompatible cleaning chemicals or not using Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) or other controls in the correct way. 

The good news is that there are well-established practical ways in which you can assess risks and prevent or control them.

Practical ways to protect yourself and others


There are several steps to undertaking a cleaning chemical assessment. This is known in the UK as a COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) assessment. 

  • Collect information (e.g. Material Safety Datasheet (MSDS)) on the harm that the cleaning substances can cause, and the prevention measures recommended by the supplier or manufacturer. This information should also be used to inform and train cleaners and draft workplace instructions for how substances should be handled.
  • Assess exposure to the identified hazardous substances, looking at the type, intensity, length, frequency and occurrence of exposure to workers, including the combined effects of hazardous substances used together and the related risk.
  • Consider which cleaners may be particularly at risk and specify controls to be taken to protect them, plus any additional training and information needs.
  • Consider people who may be exposed accidentally, for example nearby workers. Cleaners should know who to contact if things go wrong and how to protect themselves in the event of an incident.
  • Implement controls. This involves drawing up an action plan. It should list the controls to be implemented, in order of priority, to reduce the risks to workers and should specify by whom, how and by what date each step should be taken. 
  • Review and update. The cleaning chemical assessment should be regularly revised and updated. Effective risk assessment and prevention require employers to keep themselves and their workers well informed and trained. Cleaners also need to be consulted on the assessment and if there are changes to the substances, products and work processes involved in their jobs.

Prevention and control measures

There’s a clear hierarchy of controls managers and supervisors should apply when seeking to prevent harm at work. The most desirable response is to eliminate the risk. Other measures, including personal protective equipment (PPE) come further down the list. 

Here’s a link to the ‘Hierarchy of Controls’ for dangerous substances: https://oshwiki.eu/wiki/Hierarchy_of_controls_applied_to_dangerous_substances

  • Eliminate the risks – The best way of controlling risks from cleaning chemicals is by removing the hazard altogether. Can cleaning products be removed and replaced with other methods? Micro-fibre cloths for example, have been designed specifically to be able to pick up dirt, thus reducing or eliminating the need to use water and detergents.
  • Substitute the system of work, substance or plant for something less hazardous – Biological cleaning products rather than bleach and ammonia-based cleaners have been marketed over the past few years as ‘safer’ and more ‘environmentally friendly’ than traditional cleaners. These cleaners still have inherent hazards, such as eye irritation, due to the use of alcohol ethoxylates in many of them. Here’s a list: www.aboutcleaningproducts.com/science/review-papers/ 
  • Isolate the hazard – Proper storage of cleaning chemicals and using a ‘closed system’ when diluting neat chemicals are two ways to help reduce exposure.
  • Introduce engineering controls – The use of local exhaust ventilation for dilution of neat chemicals that are highly volatile. 
  • Administrative controls – Job rotation to reduce exposure to chemical cleaners, rotation of vacuuming duties vs chemical use. Training of cleaning staff in understanding requirements of hazardous substance assessments, what to do in the event of spillage of cleaning chemicals, use of work equipment such as LEV and chemical handling equipment.
  • PPE, RPE and Safety Equipment – Use of appropriate PPE/RPE for the cleaning chemicals being used. Avoidance of natural rubber (latex) gloves, not only due to potential for allergic reactions to natural rubber proteins in sensitised cleaning staff, but also due to lack of resistance against many chemicals such as solvents and acids. Using appropriate filters for RPE if needed. For example, organic solvents or acid fumes from certain cleaning agents require organic solvent filters fitted to half-masks. Training and face fit testing is also required to use PPE/RPE effectively.