Understanding Chemical Exposure During COVID-19


There has always been a need for managers and employees to be properly trained when handling chemicals in the workplace. However, enhanced sanitization and disinfection protocols for COVID-19 have resulted in the use of new chemicals in the workplace and underscore the need for strong safety practices. The good news is there are practical measures businesses can take to address and minimize the added chemical risk.

One of the first measures that employers can take is to train all employees on the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). GHS is an international system of chemical classification, labeling and hazard communication. This will elevate awareness and provide a common framework related to chemical exposure and precautionary measures.

This is also a good time to update safety data sheets for the chemicals being used at the workplace. A safety data sheet will include information related to the properties of a chemical along with protective measures and safety precautions for its handling, storage and transportation. As new chemicals are brought into the workplace to address COVID-19, new safety data sheets should be added, while outdated pages for chemicals no longer in use should be discarded. Chemical suppliers can offer added insights and training.

Managers and employees should also have a basic knowledge and understanding of what chemicals are found in the workplace. Chlorine and formaldehyde are quickly classified as chemicals. However, employees may not recognize some chemicals or understand their reactive properties. In some cases, employees may not associate a trade name with chemical properties or they may overlook common substances such as salt or vinegar.

It is also important to review cleaning equipment such as buckets, bottles, containers, rags, mops and sponges to ensure the right chemical is used in the right container with the right application. This is essential given the increased measures being taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Proper labeling, use and disposal of these items can prevent adverse reactions and consequences.

Since the onset of COVID-19, the use of hand sanitizers has increased significantly. While hand sanitizers are often viewed as benign, most hand sanitizers are alcohol-based. Products with 70% alcohol or more may be flammable. Therefore, when using hand sanitizers that contain alcohol at the workplace, it is important to avoid grills, fryers, heat lamps, conveyer cookers, hot plates, heat exchange coils, open flames and areas of friction.

Hand sanitizers are regulated as over–the-counter non-prescription drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – and not all hand sanitizers are the same. It’s likely that we all heard recent warnings about dangerous sanitizers making their way into the market – most notably, those found to contain highly toxic methanol. It is important to read the label and follow any warnings, either from the manufacturer or the FDA. While employers can review the chemical composition of the hand sanitizer the company provides, some employees and customers are also bringing their personal hand sanitizers to the workplace, thereby introducing unknown elements and increasing the risk factor.

Further, hand sanitizers must be stored out of reach of children and pets, as in the case of retail or restaurant locations. Moreover, children should only use hand sanitizer with adult supervision. Many restaurants and retail outlets are providing additional stands with hand sanitizer available. Again, precautions must be taken around these additional dispensers to ensure they are not improperly used and to make sure these dispensers are out of reach of children to avoid swallowing and ingestion.

Similar challenges arise around cleaning and disinfecting chemicals. Some employees and customers are bringing their own cleaners to wipe down tables and chairs in a lunchroom or restaurant. In addition to alcohol, surface cleaners may be adding additional unknown chemicals into your environment. Common chemical additives in cleaners may include: chlorine and chlorine compounds, formaldehyde, hydrogen peroxide, peracetic acid among others.

Managers and employees must understand common cleaning products cannot be mixed. For example, bleach and vinegar products produce chlorine gas when mixed. The resulting gas can cause coughing, difficulty breathing and burning, watery eyes. Exposure may be fatal. The same applies to many other toxic combinations.

The attempt to prevent COVID-19 through increased cleaning has undoubtedly increased exposure to chemicals. Best practices and incident training help ensure that employees understand precautions and respond appropriately to the added presence and exposure of the substances. Now is the time for businesses to step up, take special precautions, and conduct proper training. In summary, organizations should consider the following:

  • Provide universal employee training
  • Set parameters for chemical use and storage
  • Address controls such as eliminating old chemicals, using source concentrations, limiting employee access and exposure, and requiring personal protective equipment
  • Train on relevant safety data sheets
  • Establish a response team and address potential scenarios such as a chemical spill or release, ventilation and call for help

The following links provide additional background information that employers will find useful:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


U.S. Food and Drug Administration


EPA – List N Tools


Safety data sheet (example)


By Michael Lorms

Courtesy of Sedgwick Connection

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