Give Chemicals the Respect They Deserve

Give Chemicals the Respect They Deserve

By Diane M. Calabrese / Published April 2022

Photo by iStockphoto.com/NoraVector

Safe, precise, and efficient, chemicals today accomplish more with less. And the more with less trajectory shows no sign of abating—good news! But don’t get carried away by it and inadvertently turn lackadaisical. Chemicals demand respect. A huge component of chemical safety is giving them the respect they deserve.

     Never make the mistake of proceeding based on a good guess. “When taking on a cleaning job where you’re not sure what chemical to use for the application, I suggest getting with the chemical supplier to get his expert opinion on what chemical to use,” says Mike Turner, president of Etowah Chemical Sales and Service in Gadsden, AL. 

     Once the correct chemical is in hand, use it properly. Read the SDS [safety data sheet] and use the required PPE [personal protective equipment].

     Employers have the responsibility to ensure their team is educated and up to date on the use of chemicals. OSHA mandates certain safety meetings, but the owner of a business can schedule beyond those required to make certain the team has all the information needed to work without incidents.

     “Safety meetings to review the SDSs on the chemicals your employees will be using and training in the proper protective equipment to use with each chemical should be routine,” says Turner. “This will prevent accidents to your employees and prevent damage to the property of your customer,” he says.

     Even the most familiar chemical can be used incorrectly and become a danger. Constant reinforcement of protocols ensures that does not happen. 

     In many ways, bleach poses a unique challenge to safety. On the one hand, it’s used frequently, but on the other hand, it’s known so well that lapses in proper deployment can happen.

     “Bleach—a tremendous amount of bleach is used by contractors,” says Turner. “It’s a great cleaning product when used properly, but it can be lethal if mixed with acids or inhaled.”

     Complacency is always the enemy of safety. It creeps into situations that are so well known to us we start to take everything for granted. Even bleach.

     “Always put the emphasis on chemical safety by holding refresher safety meetings, posting signs, and doing drills,” says Linda Chambers, brand and sales manager, Georgia Chemical Equipment (GCE) in Norcross, GA. In that, don’t fall into too much predictability with the meetings, signs, or drills.

     “Signs have a tendency to start to blend into the background or wall they are on,” says Chambers. “So, one tip is to change them often—monthly or at least once a quarter—using color or comedy to make them stand out and be seen.”

     Whatever it takes, get the attention of team members. Keep them alert and focused.

     Humor is good. Sometimes—and OSHA taps into this—it’s necessary to remind team members of what can happen if they ever let the “just this once” sentiment overtake them. If necessary, as in if there are team members to whom nothing on the carrot side seems to be getting their attention, use some of the OSHA summaries of bad incidents as sticks.

     Chambers’ company once a year offers help specifically for owners. “There is an entire class we give here about once a year on how to set up OSHA training for a business.”

     Good results and safety are inextricably linked. If a chemical is used incorrectly, it not only poses a danger, but it also diverges from the course that brings desired results.

     “Always know what the correct chemical is for your job,” says Chambers. That’s the starting point.

     “You can waste a lot of time and money and possibly either do harm to the surface—using the wrong chemical—or have no results at all,” says Chambers. It cannot be emphasized strenuously enough that “you need to know how to use the correct chemical in the correct and safe manner.”

     In the context of our industry, Chambers also cites bleach as a chemical that’s so often deployed that risks associated with it are forgotten. “Bleach is the most widely used hazardous chemical that does not get the attention it deserves, but hydrofluoric acid is the most dangerous, and many are not aware of that at all.”

     There is also a danger inherent in combining chemicals in an inappropriate sequence. “There is the hazard of using acid with or nearby right after using bleach,” explains Chambers.

     And Chambers shares a few of the negatives about bleach and hydrofluoric acid. “Bleach—if you can smell it, it is damaging your lungs.” She points to the long-term effects of inhalation, including COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] and asthma. 

     Bleach causes other problems. “On your skin it is corrosive, and even if not enough to give you burns right away, it can cause cancer later,” says Chambers. “In your eyes it can blind you, and even fumes can harm your vision over time.”

     The risks of exposure to hydrofluoric acid are very bad. “Hydrofluoric acid—this can kill you,” says Chambers. “It has killed too many already, and it is slowly killing and maiming others.”

     What is the action of hydrofluoric acid? “This acid does not burn skin like other acids. It absorbs down through the skin and muscles into the bone,” explains Chambers.

     And Chambers is deeply concerned about those who do not know how dangerous hydrofluoric acid is. “So many do not realize that even small amounts that come in contact with their skin or on their hands are actually going down to their bones, eating them up, making the bones brittle, and causing severe arthritis over time.”

     Sometimes team members become inured to safety training. Younger team members especially may not feel they are vulnerable to anything—it’s the nature of youth.

     “PPE and safety education are the only ways to meet the challenge,” says Chambers. “If contractors put the same concern to their later health as they do making money today, they would be around longer and feel better in their old age, as well as having money to enjoy it.”


     Government entities with a focus on safety, such as OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] and NIOSH [National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health] provide an abundance of training material. For instance, NIOSH maintains a chemical protective clothing database that provides guidelines for which PPE to use with which chemicals.

     Keep in mind that if PPE is used by team members, training in the use of PPE must be given in addition to training in chemical use. Fundamental to training in use of PPE is the reminder to team members that PPE is designed to minimize risk in a hazardous situation. No one should don PPE and then feel invulnerable.

     Among the guides OSHA offers is one that assists in the assessment of which PPE is needed, complete with checklists. Start with OSHA’s Chemical Hazards and Toxic Substances (https://www.osha.gov/chemical-hazards/resources). The first entry in that online document links to the OSHA Chemical Information Database.

     The database from OSHA can be searched by chemical name, analyte code, or CAS number. It gives a description of the chemical, uses, and known risks. 

     The analyte code is a standard used by the EPA [U.S Environmental Protection Agency] (and states) to identify a substance that has chemical components. The CAS number is as many as 10 digits long with as many as two hyphens. It is the number assigned to a chemical substance by the CAS Registry (see CAS.org for more information about connection to American Chemical Society and world standard). 

     The CAS Registry includes substances from 1957 to present and is updated daily.

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