There is no doubt restoration professionals wear a lot of hats. Owners, managers, and supervisors often act as estimators and customer service representatives, while also handling human resource issues of restoration team members (especially in this tight labor market, where finding and keeping workers is so critical to the success of an operation). And, of course, somewhere in the mix, there is a desire and duty to keep everyone safe.
Dealing Properly with Chemicals Is Just One Slice of the Safety “Pie”
Generally, only the larger restoration companies have the flexibility to employ a part-time or full-time safety specialist. Still, even people in a designated safety position can get overwhelmed. In addition to all the technical training that team members need to competently deal with situations such as fire, water, forensic, and mold losses, there is a myriad of safety issues to address as well. Safe driving, proper procedures to prevent slips, trips, and falls, correct lifting techniques, the right selection and use of ladders, when and how to wear personal protective equipment, and the careful use of power tools are all topics worthy of attention for restoration team members.
Still, what gets overlooked far too often (even though it shows up in the top five most frequently cited list of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations year after year) is explaining to workers the safe use of chemicals on the job site. Such citations are classified as violations of the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard.
That vague-sounding title identifies the regulation, which delineates the steps necessary to make sure that workers are not harmed by chemical substances. Make no mistake, the reasons that violations of OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard are constantly in the top five is because the danger is real.
A Tragic Example of the Dangers of Mixing Chemicals
Even a cursory search of safety records quickly identifies a litany of tragic scenarios involving improper handling and mixing of chemicals. Damage to skin, eyes, and the respiratory tract are the most common problems, but such incidents can have more significant outcomes. For example, in 2019 the manager of a Burlington, Massachusetts restaurant was fatally exposed to chlorine gas. This workplace death was the result of the manager attempting to clean up a bubbling concoction that was created when a floor cleaning chemical was used to clean up an earlier chemical spill. One of the restaurant workers responded to the accidental dumping of a concentrated bathroom cleaner by spraying it with a second cleaner normally used for floors. When the reaction created noxious fumes that were so bad it started driving patrons from the restaurant, the manager rushed to the spot and tried to mop up the chemical combination. His inadvertent mixing of the materials accelerated the reaction between the products that were creating chlorine gas. At that point, a few deep breaths were all it took for the damage to his lungs to be fatal.
In retrospect, the actions almost make sense.
Something was spilled on the floor, so using the floor cleaner on it seemed logical. However, in this case, the sodium hypochlorite (bleach) in the floor cleaner was between 8-10% of the solution. This concentration of bleach can be found in many kitchen cleaning products (as well as many stain removers and cleaners developed for the restoration industry). Unfortunately, the kitchen floor cleaning chemical, which was sprayed on top of the spilled bathroom cleaning product, contained a high concentration of phosphoric acid. The use of different types of acid in bathroom cleaning products is fairly common, as it assists with the removal of mineral deposits and water scale. Once the bleach product came in contact with the acid in the bathroom cleaner, the resulting green bubbling hazard released chlorine gas.
This chlorine gas, sickly green in color, is similar to what was used as a weapon during the first World War. Once inhaled, this deadly brew starts to break down the lung tissue, a process that causes irreversible damage with even minor inhalation. Sadly, inhalation of chlorine gas quickly becomes an untreatable run-away reaction leading to death by drowning in one’s own liquified lungs.
Restoration Companies Are Also at Risk
In the example described above, both chemicals that ended up creating a deadly brew were in the restaurant. Both played a valuable role in keeping the restaurant clean. The problem was that the employees had never really been taught about chemical safety, especially the risks of the specific products that are in the building for cleaning purposes. In a similar vein, it is important to ask about the combination of chemicals carried in the typical service van and/or truck for a restoration company. Indeed, the variety of chemicals being carried in the company truck as it bumps its way from project to project is often greater than what is found in the janitor’s closet of a typical building. Another important factor is that the restoration chemicals jostling about on the truck shelves are usually compounded at a higher concentration of active ingredients than the over-the-counter homeowner or janitorial formulations found on the project site. The risks of this situation, if not managed well, are difficult to overstate.
Unfortunately, the situation is getting worse, rather than better, from a safety standpoint. Like many other industries, the restoration field has become ever more reliant on the infusion of short-term labor and suffers from a high turnover of experienced staff. With the high employee turnover, the likelihood of accidental chemical mixing by employees only becomes more pronounced. Many companies are understandably hesitant to invest time and money in training workers if they are expecting to see them move on in a year or less. This lack of investment in even cursory safety training, such as an OSHA 8-hour class, leaves the company handbook and the employee’s background knowledge as the only controls to prevent a possible catastrophic combination of chemicals while on a project site.
Rarely is such mixing intentional, such as adding two chemicals to a bucket of cleaner. More often, the mixing occurs when, like in the example of the restaurant manager discussed earlier, multiple chemicals are applied to structural surfaces. In those cases, if they are not allowed enough time to dry before a follow-on chemical is applied, or if they are mixed as two liquids or a liquid and a solid, then the unexpected can happen.
After the fact, the reality of the situation is that neither the worker’s lungs nor OSHA will care why the hazardous mixing of chemicals occurred. Since many of the products utilized in the restoration industry sanitize or disinfect during the cleaning process, they are subject to EPA regulations and labeling requirements. In those cases, the manufacturers are required to provide a list of ingredients, as well as health and safety data on the retail label affixed to each purchased unit. Even so, this information can easily get lost between the storeroom and the end user, due to the product being transferred from larger quantities to smaller containers for ease of use. Another factor to consider is that in most instances, the product label is printed only in English. This can be a real obstacle to safety if the workplace is multilingual.
Taking Steps to Prevent Chemical Exposure Problems
It is clearly the responsibility of everyone involved to attempt to prevent hazardous chemical exposure. As with any problem, knowledge of the problem is a key component to solving the issue. The first and most powerful step in the process of chemical risk mitigation is to teach the field technician to reduce the use of chemicals on the job site to the lowest extent possible. Minimizing the application of chemicals not only reduces the exposure to potent restoration chemicals and their direct effects, but chemical mitigation efforts also reduce the opportunity for accidental mixing and exposure to reaction byproducts.
However, multiple chemicals are a critically important part of the tool kit for a restoration project. Cleaners related to fire loss, odor mitigation chemicals, antimicrobial products to deal with dangerous residue from mold or forensic projects, stain removers, dust suppressants, and a host of other products are often an absolute necessity on the restoration job site. Still, as the number and variety of chemicals that are carried on the vehicle and used on the project site continue to multiply, the risk for accidental interactions between two or more products grows exponentially.
Fortunately, a number of restoration industry chemical manufacturers have taken these concerns seriously. One of the easiest ways to reduce chemical exposure problems from inappropriate mixing is to purchase in-stock chemicals that are compatible with one another. This has led some producers to specifically focus on making the process of applying their family of chemicals simpler and safer for the end user. Starting a trend, Bad Axe Restoration Products introduced a series of chemical products for the mold restoration industry with the tagline: Clean it. Kill it. Contain it. Clear it. One of the primary advantages of employing all four of the Bad Axe products for an individual mold restoration project is that the individual chemicals from the company’s product family were confirmed to be compatible between one product and another.
Bad Axe is not the only company to understand the importance, from a safety perspective, of having a group of chemicals for specific types of projects which work in combination with one another rather than having the potential for creating adverse reactions. Bioesque offers their chemicals for remediation work with the slogan: Clean, Disinfect, Protect. With the combination of Fiberlock and Benefect under the ICP banner, their Clean, Kill, Coat system for success helps to ensure the success of a mold remediation project from a safety standpoint as well.
Interestingly, the Bad Axe family of chemicals not only accomplished chemical compatibility safety by design of the materials going into each product, but with actual laboratory testing of batches. As a secondary precaution, products are field-tested by an associated restoration company to make sure that they work under real-world conditions and do not cause chemical reaction problems when applied according to the manufacturer’s directions. Although perhaps not as formal as that process, many of the other chemical manufacturers have close relationships with various restoration contractors where the new products are evaluated in real-world conditions until efficacy data over a large volume of projects can be documented.
Personal Protective Equipment Is Still Important
While using a “family” of products does substantially minimize risk of negative mixing reactions to the end user, it cannot eliminate chemical risks entirely. For example, to stick with the Bad Axe scenario, their MMR Mold and Mildew Stain Remover is produced with approximately 7% sodium hypochlorite compound in its solution. When using a product like MMR, respiratory protection with organic vapor filtration is essential, along with eye and skin protection. While these rules might be more critical for a chemical with such a high bleach concentration, such precautions are nearly a universal recommendation based on the label or safety data sheet for most chemicals on the restoration truck.
While personal protective equipment is a last line of defense between the worker and hazards, it is far better to put up with the inconvenience of using gloves, respirators, and eye protection, than risking exposure without it. Still, having personal protective equipment readily available is not enough. Restoration companies need to do a better job in providing basic chemical safety training to all of their employees. Simple things, like the proper removal of disposable gloves without the worker contaminating their hands, is a critical skill that needs to be shared with all of their restoration technicians.
In regard to personal protective equipment, a lack of training is often exacerbated by a lack of supervision and enforcement of an existing policy. If the estimator or project lead does not don their respirator and a disposable coverall to check on job site progress, it is safe to assume that the workers will not be wearing them shortly after that management representative leaves the site.
Chemicals Should Never Be Treated Casually
In summary, keeping everyone safe takes many steps. Every restoration project contains hazards. Some of them are obvious, like a hole burned through the floor, or the debris and water strewn all over, which makes walking safely without falling a real challenge.
Beyond the visible safety issues, restoration workers need to pay attention to the hazards that are carried onto the project as well. Through proper training and a thoughtful approach to what chemicals are purchased, transported, and used, restoration contractors can go a long way to keep their workers and clients safe from chemical hazards. Using a family of chemicals from the same manufacturer that are designed to be compatible just makes common sense. Reminding team members to read the product labels before using chemicals is another important step that a restoration contractor can take to avoid chemical exposure incidents. As anyone who has survived an accident knows, it never takes too long to do the job safely. This is especially true if using chemicals is part of that work process.