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Janitorially Speaking - Knowledge Is Safety

By Del Stevens
Published: March 1, 2014 | Last updated: May 3, 2018 04:06:30
Key Takeaways

Both domestically and in the workplace, there are dangerous assumptions made about chemical safety. When it comes to your safety and the safety of those around you, you ought to know better – and the means to do so is at hand.

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Where is the most dangerous place in your house? Chances are, like millions of others, you were told at school that the kitchen is the most dangerous place in the home. Sharp knives, water heaters, boiling pans, hot ovens - the potential hazards are everywhere and young children are, quite rightly, warned away from things that burn and slice.

So, what about the most dangerous cupboard in the kitchen? The answer probably doesn't readily leap to mind, but, statistically speaking, the odds are in favor of it being the cupboard under the sink. This is where most households keep cleaning solutions - bleaches, detergents and maybe some drain cleaner or other caustic-soda related products. In that cupboard you'll probably also find a number of apparently benign substances, which may be riskier than you might think.


When was the last time you read the safety information on a box of dishwasher detergent? According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, "Dishwasher detergents are highly corrosive substances that cause potentially life-threatening injuries." Unfortunately, though, because we buy these chemicals from our local supermarket, we assume that they are inherently safe when the opposite is true. Even when we know that the product is inherently unsafe, there is a high chance we don't really take in all of the safety warnings. Take a moment to review this guidance from a well known domestic drain cleaning product: "May burn eyes, skin and mucous membranes on contact." And likely, that's where we finish reading - grab a pair of gloves, maybe some eye-protection, and set to work. Except the same paragraph goes on to say "Do not use or mix this product with ammonia, toilet bowl cleaners or other drain openers as hazardous gases may be released and a violent eruption may occur."

There are two things worthy of note here. In the first instance, I'm thinking that I don't really want to bring the components for a "violent eruption" into my house, especially since I have no plans to become the next YouTube sensation by destroying my kitchen. But the second item is this "mixing products" guidance. This label warns us of immediately dangerous combinations - and so, in terms of storage, if you own both products, the sensible thing to do is to keep them well away from one another. Unfortunately, this kind of data is not common. There are two reasons for this - the first is because the research quite often simply hasn't been done; there are an incalculable number of potential combinations of cleaning products that you may store in your house. Also, under the existing labeling legislation, it's not mandatory to do so.

There is also an issue about the presentation of these warnings from this example bottle. Yes, the writing is in red, but it's written in pretty small print, all in a single paragraph on the back of the bottle beneath some eye-catchingly-colorful pictorial instructions and a large banner informing me that the manufacturer is not responsible if I improperly use the product. It's not exactly "in your face" guidance. Better information about the product will be included on its Material Safety Data Sheet or MSDS. And while this may not be immediately available, it can be found through the helpful resource that is the household products database from the US Departments of Health and Human Science.

At the very least, the MSDS will list the health rating, flammability rating and product handling requirements of the product. For the budding chemists among you, you can also track the active ingredients of the products and then, by highlighting them, conduct an automated search of TOXNET - another health and human science database providing access to scholarly articles about the various toxicity and carcinogenic properties of that chemical. I don't know about you, but I'm not a budding chemist. And being led to a document about the effects of chlorine bleach exposure on teenagers with learning difficulties (yes, that article exists) isn't really helping me decide about whether my bottle of "Acme Toilet Disinfectant" should be stored next to my "Ace Bathroom Bleach."


So, in short, we have a poorly created label, an incomplete set of health and safety information and a set of documents that requires a Ph.D. in chemistry to interpret. Added to that, we've concentrated on a domestic setting so far. These chemicals and their concentrations are exponentially more dangerous in an industrial setting where the acidity/alkalinity of detergent products are far more acute.

Thankfully, help is at hand for these issues. A process that began in the U.S. in 2013 sees the transition to the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals. The project will not be fully realized until 2015, but will result in the Hazard Communications Standard (HCS) and a revision of existing documentation from MSDS, to the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) on which the information requirements are both more rigorous and, as the name suggests, will provide a globally standardized method of data presentation. Full details can be accessed on the U.S. Department of Labor website, but the important key messages include the presentation of data into clearly marked separate areas, but also mandates "Recommendations on the conditions for safe storage, including any incompatibilities," which should remove some of the guesswork when working out which products need to be kept apart.

If you are an employer and you have people working with chemicals, then you ought to know the key dates involved with the project - at least because by December 1, 2013, your employees should have been trained to expect and interpret the revised SDS. The reality is, although the accessibility, quality and layout of the safety data is improving, it is still only going to work if we take the time to read the advice.


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Written by Del Stevens

Profile Picture of Del Stevens
Del Stevens is an independent consultant engaged in training and education in a wide range of disciplines. With an international client list in industries as diverse as the military, government, oil and gas and, most recently, the health sector, there is habitually more work than time. Despite this, Del writes daily, both professionally and for amusement, and has the pleasure of being published online and in print. Much older than he looks, Del’s favorite things are hugs with his family.

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