How to Reduce Custodial Injuries

Understanding SDS is one of the foremost important things to increase workplace safety and prevent custodial injuries.

A Hispanic cleaning worker in North America had her own special way of identifying cleaning solutions. Because English was a second language for her—making it difficult for her to read labels and virtually impossible to read material safety data sheets (MSDS)—she would open a cleaning solution, take a whiff, and determine if it was the product she needed for the cleaning task at hand. In other words, she used her nose to tell one cleaning solution from another.

While her “system” worked for a while, it all came crashing down when this cleaning worker sniffed a bottle that contained ammonia. According to sources at the scene, the worker suffered severe mucous membrane damage and needed to be hospitalized. Fortunately, in time she was well, but she did miss a week of work.

Another cleaning contractor says he can relate to this incident. Years ago, he said, he had a contract cleaning company. One of his customers was a large gym that had to be cleaned every night. He and his crew had been cleaning the tile floors in the locker rooms with a solution containing sodium hypochlorite, more commonly known as bleach. But over time, the grout and floors were getting darker and darker. One night, the crew had just applied the bleach solution to the floor and, because it did not appear to be doing the job, grabbed an all-purpose cleaner from the closet and applied it to the floor as well. Their thought was that the two working together might get the floors looking better.

What they did not realize was that the all-purpose cleaner contained ammonia, and, as we all know, bleach and ammonia are a very harmful combination. Quickly running outside, they luckily avoided suffering any serious consequences from the toxic fumes.

Incidents like this are very common in the professional cleaning industry, long considered a high-risk profession. And they are even more common among workers for which English is a second language.

A study funded by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found that the number of Hispanic workers injured on the job in the United States, when compared to non-Hispanics and whites, was considerably higher. And as for work-related deaths, the study also reported, “In the United States, the proportion of Hispanic or Latino workers that die in the workplace is higher than that of other workers. Although the rate of work-related deaths has decreased generally over the years, it has not decreased among Hispanic or Latino workers.”

So how can we get on top of this situation and help reduce custodial worker injuries not only for Hispanic workers but for all workers? Well, there is already a way, and that is with the new safety data sheets (SDS)—formerly MSDS— introduced in 2015.

One of the big changes with the SDS is that they can now be written in the language of the cleaning worker. The MSDS were introduced in the mid-1980s in the United States and Canada. At that time, it was required that they were written in English. While some manufacturers translated the MSDS into other languages, it was not uncommon for some of these translations to be less than accurate.

But there are some other changes with the new SDS that should increase safety and reduce custodial injuries as well, with the most important being that written warnings are being replaced with symbols. Universally understood advisory and warning signage has been developed so that cleaning workers using a product anywhere in the world can quickly grasp precautions and warnings about the product.

And something that would have really helped in the aforementioned incident: the new SDS are required reading. Employers are required to spend time with their staff reviewing the SDS of any product used for its cleaning tasks.

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