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Disinfecting May Thwart Virus but Raise Chemical Risks at Work

May 21, 2020, 10:00 AM

Employers will need to create or revise training programs and guides to take into account the use of harsher cleaning chemicals to destroy the coronavirus as businesses reopen, workplace safety consultants and attorneys warn.

“In certain industries where hazard communications hasn’t been a concern, it might fall between the cracks,” attorney Mini Kapoor, an associate with Haynes & Boone L.L.P. in Houston, said about complying with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s chemical rules.

The use of chemical agents is sure to increase if businesses follow protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and industry groups on preventing the spread of the coronavirus in workplaces.

The CDC recommends manufacturers ensure tools are regularly cleaned and disinfected, including at least as often as workers change workstations or move to a new set of tools. For offices, the American Industrial Hygiene Association advises conference rooms be cleaned after each use and that individual workplaces, such as desks, be cleaned daily or at the end of each shift.

That means businesses may turn to chemicals that are much harsher than what they used pre-pandemic, forcing them to meet federal safety rules they previously didn’t have to worry about and ensure their workers are fully trained so everyone stays safe.

“There’s a new hazard in town,” Jeffrey Lancaster, president of Lancaster Safety, a consulting company based in Wexford, Pa., said.

Potential Dangers

Even before workplaces began reopening, people were worried about the potential dangers posed by chemicals, according to an April 24 report from the CDC. Daily calls coming into poison control centers about exposure to cleaners during March, as coronavirus concerns took hold, went from an average of about 300 at the month’s start to more than 500 by the end of March. Calls about disinfectants rose from around 150 daily in early March to more than 300 by the month’s end, the report said.

OSHA rules for using chemical cleaners and disinfectants require employers to analyze the risks the chemicals pose to workers using the products as well as to employees who work where the chemicals are applied (29 C.F.R. 1910.1200).

Lancaster said employers must begin with an assessment of workplace hazards. From there, they must develop a training program for using chemicals and an education program so everyone understands the risks, and determine what safety gear, such as goggles or gloves, is needed.

The learning curve could be steep.

Learning Curve

Employers who previously had their work sites cleaned with household products such as Windex or Formula 409 may now need to use substances regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, Jenny Houlroyd, occupational health group manager for Georgia Tech University’s Safety and Health Consultation Program in Atlanta, said.

“Workers as they go back to work really need to be able to understand what they are handling if they are being asked to use or apply chemicals during their work shift,” Houlroyd said.

OSHA’s hazard communications rule sets out a wide range of responsibilities for employers using chemicals.

Employers using EPA-registered disinfectants are required to develop a written hazard communication plan; collect manufacturers’ safety data sheets explaining each product’s hazards; and ensure all chemical containers, even spray bottles, are labeled properly, Houlroyd said.

In addition to supplying chemicals, employers will need to provide protective clothing such as gloves and goggles and specific training so workers understand how certain chemicals are used and why, Houlroyd said.

“What’s really critical is that employers train their workers” and also monitor what, if any, cleaners workers bring in on their own, Houlroyd said. A worker who supplies an ammonia-based cleaner, for instance, could be exposed to a toxic gas if that cleaner is inadvertently mixed with a bleach-based product the business is spraying on surfaces, she said.

Mixing Tragedy

The unforeseen dangers of cleaning chemicals were highlighted in a recent OSHA citation issued to the owners of a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant franchise in Burlington, Mass., after an investigation into a manager’s death.

On Nov. 7, 2019, restaurant workers cleaning the kitchen mixed a chlorine-based cleaner with an acid-based cleaner, creating toxic fumes that killed a manager and sent 11 other workers and two customers to hospitals with burning eyes and breathing difficulties.

On May 6, OSHA cited the restaurant’s owner, JK & T Wings of Shelby Township, Mich., for seven alleged serious violations and proposed a $76,265 penalty.

The alleged violations included not educating workers about the cleaners’ hazards and how to use them, not providing protective wear, and not having a plan to handle emergencies.

Chemical hazard communications rule violations are annually among the top cited rules by OSHA inspectors. In fiscal year 2019, inspectors found 3,671 violations, making it the second most cited regulation for the year. Roughly 80% of the citations where handed to businesses with 100 or fewer employees, according to OSHA.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Melissa B. Robinson at; Karl Hardy at

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