Cleaning and disinfecting commonly touched surfaces are critical to keeping the COVID-19 virus, as well as other bacteria and viruses, out of schools. If employees do not follow safety procedures, however, the same chemicals that kill the virus could introduce new health hazards. The Fund has seen an uptick in chemical inhalation and skin reaction claims among members with Workers’ Compensation coverage.
Chemical safety 101
Statics suggest Americans face a learning curve when it comes to safely keeping our homes and workplaces free of germs and viruses. Cleaning and disinfectant-related calls to poison control centers increased 20 percent between January and March 2020 compared with the same three-month period last year, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report.
Any cleaning or disinfecting product can harm us if we do not handle and apply it properly. Chemical splashes, for example, have the power to irritate, burn, or damage the skin or eyes. Powerful fumes can cause allergy or asthma symptoms, breathing difficulties, or lung damage. In severe cases, symptoms of chemical exposure can include internal organ damage, violent explosions, and deadly vapors.
Encourage your staff to use this cleaning and disinfecting toolkit from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and follow these tips to protect employees and students from hazardous chemicals.
Train your team
Employees should start by cleaning common areas and frequently touched surfaces with soap and water to reduce germs, dirt, and impurities. They should follow up with disinfectant to kill remaining germs. Schools are calling on all staff to help with cleaning and disinfecting during the pandemic. Custodial teams, along with teachers, administrators, bus drivers, and support staff, should know how to protect themselves, their co-workers, and your students from the hazards associated with chemicals.
Choose safe products
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a list of disinfectants it expects will kill the
COVID-19 virus when used according to manufacturer instructions. For more protection against inhalation hazards, consider EPA-approved wipes in small areas such as classrooms. You can also explore spray-and-wipe disinfectants as cost-effective alternative. Finally, do not allow employees to bring their own chemicals into the workplace.
Store chemicals securely
Employees who apply cleaners and disinfectants are not the only stakeholders at risk. The CDC advises schools to store chemicals in a secure location, away from students’ reach and sight, with lids tightly closed.
Rely on labels and SDSs
The Texas Hazard Communication Act requires employers to maintain labels and Safety Data Sheets (SDS) for every hazardous cleaning product and chemical they use. Labels and SDSs list the hazards associated with chemicals, explain how to safely handle chemicals, designate which type of personal protective equipment (PPE) to use, and describe how to safely store chemicals. Read the SDS in advance to ensure the product is appropriate for your particular use and application.
Use PPE properly
PPE puts a barrier between hazards and employees. Because PPE could be damaged or improperly fit to the user, you should always consider it the last line of defense against workplace hazards. Start by removing hazards or reducing employees’ exposure when possible. For example, you might be able to substitute a hazardous cleaning product for a less-hazardous alternative.
Requirements vary by product, but these forms of PPE generally apply when working with hazardous chemicals:
Gloves, gowns. Use gloves and gowns to prevent direct skin exposure. Clothing should cover all skin other than the hands and face. Remind employees to protect themselves by removing gloves and gowns carefully and washing their hands immediately. Employees should talk to their supervisor to ensure disposable PPE is properly discarded after each use.
Eye, face protection. Goggles or safety glasses, face shields, and face masks that cover the nose and mouth protect employees and guard against chemical splashes.
Respirators. The market offers a variety of respirators that protect against small respiratory droplets and reduce chemical fume exposure. Apply these general principles when employees use respirators:
- Single-use “dust masks” are not respirators, and they do not protect against hazardous chemicals.
- Consult chemical labels and SDSs for guidance on which respirators to use, and train employees to wear a respirator properly (also available in Spanish).
- Before employees wear respirators, they must have a medical evaluation and fit test. They must also conduct a respirator seal check before each use.
Avoid combining chemicals
Do not mix bleach or other cleaning and disinfecting products without reading their labels and SDSs. If you mix incompatible chemicals, you could create health hazards. For example, products that contain bleach and ammonia can combine to cause severe lung damage or death. You should also avoid storing chemicals in containers that do not have the correct label or instructions.
More is not always better when it comes to cleaning and disinfecting. Overuse can contribute to health hazards, so apply no more than the manufacturer recommends. Employees should also make sure cleaning towels are free of oil, dirt, and residue from other chemicals.
Dilute chemicals safely
Use only the concentration specified on the instructions. To dilute a chemical safely, fill a bucket with water, and then use a designated measuring container to get the specified amount. Slowly pour the chemical into the bucket to avoid splashing. Water should be room temperature unless the manufacturer instructs you otherwise.
Ventilate the area
Keep doors and windows open to increase ventilation in facilities and buses, but always prioritize security. As a supplementary or alternative strategy, adjust your ventilation systems to dilute toxic fumes. During extensive cleaning and disinfecting, employees should periodically step outside for fresh air.
Be careful with alternative applications
The pandemic has ramped up interest in fogging, fumigation, and electrostatic disinfectant sprayers that efficiently cover large areas. The Environmental Protection Agency is still studying whether it is safe and effective to use an alternative application method with disinfectants on their approved list. For now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using liquid disinfectants. If you are considering an alternative application method, check the product label for compatibility.
Stay on top of evolving risks
TASB staff is monitoring the rapidly evolving pandemic and sharing best practices with members. Our InsideRM blog is a hub for expert articles on protecting stakeholders from COVID-19. We also encourage members to watch our COVID-19 webinar series, including the installment titled Your Primer on Disinfecting for Coronavirus. As always, if you need help managing the risks associated with COVID-19, contact your risk solutions consultant.