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Working with dust, dirt and chemicals: how can cleaners stay safe and healthy?

The European cleaning and facility services industry employs over 4 million people across 277,000 companies, many of them SMEs. The nature of cleaning work means that most – if not all – cleaners are in close contact with dangerous substances every day. What steps can cleaning firms take to reduce workers’ risk of exposure?


The scope of risk to cleaners

The risk of exposure to dangerous substances for cleaning sector workers comes from three main areas.

1. Chemical risk – which comes from cleaning agents with detergents, acids and bases, solvents and disinfectants used in everyday cleaning. Many cleaning agents include fragrances or perfumes, which can cause allergic reactions.

2. Substances being cleaned – especially dust, soot and dirt – can also be harmful to workers when breathed in. Dust in particular can contain a mixture of harmful particles, including minerals, metals, bacteria and mould.

3. Chemical reactions – caused by applying cleaning agents to substances such as fat, grease or dirt or using them together with other products – can present a risk.

Cleaning takes place in every workplace, meaning cleaners will be working in a variety of environments such as homes, offices, factories, warehouses, schools, shops, aircrafts and hospitals, and the types of risks they are exposed to are not only specific to the tasks, but also to the sector and premises they work in.

The requirement to work in different places also means that cleaners may work for several employers or be subcontracted, often with short-term contracts or on a part-time basis. Proper coordination and communication between all parties regarding the products used, the environments involved, or the level of training provided to workers is necessary. Specialised cleaning jobs, such as dry or industrial cleaning or cleaning in a high-risk area, require specific measures to be communicated and implemented.

How can cleaning companies protect their workers?

Cleaning companies should know which substances their workers are exposed to and who is exposed. Businesses should record the products used by employees and establish a workplace risk assessment (including an inventory of substances), considering the type, intensity, length and frequency of potential exposure and other exposures at the specific workplace. A comprehensive procedure to store, manage, identify and safely dispose of chemicals should also be implemented.

As part of the risk assessment, cleaning companies must also consider the biological or infectious agents that workers could be exposed to as part of their cleaning routine. For instance, they could be at risk of needlestick injuries, contracting Weil’s disease from rats’ urine, or catching legionella from stagnant water. The risk assessment should therefore cover the premises and conditions in which cleaners are working, and specific guidance on the measures to be taken should be provided.

To reduce any risks identified, cleaning companies should eliminate and substitute as many dangerous substances as possible. For example, one cleaning company in Sweden successfully reduced the number of dangerous substances used to a limited number of approved chemicals. In Denmark, the Association of Public Purchasers (IKA) changed Danish procurement guidelines to ensure that procured cleaning agents may not contain dangerous substances.

In another example, the use of ultrapure water offered a safer alternative to harmful cleaning agents. Where dangerous substances cannot be eliminated or substituted, employers should ensure that substances are used and diluted as per the manufacturer’s instructions and that they are not mixed with other products. They should also consult and inform workers and ensure that cleaning work is supervised and carried out in a well-ventilated space.

Other measures include:

  • providing free-of-charge work clothing and personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers;
  • drawing up a skin protection plan;
  • monitoring the health of cleaners working with chemicals, or those working in excessively dirty, dusty or sooty environments.

With these measures in place, businesses should provide training for all staff on how to do their job safely. This training should communicate clear, understandable and direct information and should be updated regularly and when any changes occur.

How can cleaners protect themselves?

Cleaners also have a responsibility to follow all safety rules and instructions and avoid harm to themselves and their colleagues. Cleaners should take part in any training provided by their employer or request training if none is offered. They should also wear all PPE provided by the employer for specific tasks, especially gloves and eyeglasses, and ensure that cleaning agents are properly used and stored and kept in their original boxes or bottles to avoid the risk of accidental injury or ingestion. If in doubt, they can consult the safety representative.

In the event of any personal reactions to the substances they work with – such as dry skin, dermatitis or respiratory problems – or of any incidents, workers should report the details to their employer.

Cleaning is a key part of maintaining a safe and healthy workplace for all workers. However, it is vital that cleaners themselves are protected when doing their job. For more information about managing dangerous substances in the cleaning sector, read the OSHwiki articles on the situation of cleaners and dangerous substances and vulnerable groups. Online risk assessment tools for the cleaning sector are available on the OiRA website. A selection of Napo films are also available, focusing on staying safe when cleaning, protecting your skin, and working with chemicals. Don’t forget to keep up-to-date with campaign news via the Healthy Workplaces campaign website, as well as by following it on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, using the hashtag #EUhealthyworkplaces.