Exposure to Cleaning Chemicals at Work
As a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Government issued advice on ensuring that all workplaces are kept clean and ‘Covid Safe’. These measures included: increased frequency of cleaning, stronger cleaning chemicals and deep cleans. These will have involved greater chemical exposure , more frequent chemical exposure and lots of potential problems, such as occupational asthma and occupational dermatitis.
Many cleaning chemicals use chlorine as the active ingredient and chlorine is a known respiratory and skin irritant. Other chemicals may also be used and can also cause skin and lung irritation. Chlor-Clean and Acti-Chlor are two such examples that I have come across in the past that have caused occupational dermatitis and occupational asthma. The chemical in neat form can be a liquid or a tablet which needs to be handled carefully, with protective equipment such as gloves. If this comes in to contact with the skin it can cause irritation and dermatitis, particularly with prolonged or regular exposure. This chemical is then mixed by the worker with water to make a solution. This solution can then then create a gas that can be inhaled by the worker during the mixing process and during use. This can cause occupational asthma with prolonged or regular chemical exposure.
As a result of the chemical exposure, workers could develop irritant contact dermatitis or allergic contact dermatitis. Both conditions can be incredibly painful and can have a major impact upon your home, social and working life. If you have irritant contact dermatitis then removal of the irritant is key. Once the irritant is removed, and avoided, a recovery can usually be made. If the condition is allergic then this can be a more complex situation and could be lifelong. You could even end up not being able to do your job and losing your livelihood.
Occupational asthma can also be irritant or allergic in nature. Both conditions can be very damaging for the worker and also have a major impact upon your home, social and working life. As with irritant dermatitis, if you have irritant asthma then removal of the irritant is key. If the condition is allergic then it could be a lifelong condition with far reaching consequences.
Your employer has duties to protect you and to make sure that you do not develop irritant or allergic dermatitis or asthma. When using chemicals, gloves and breathing protection are key for preventing occupational dermatitis and occupational asthma. There are laws in place for your employer to follow and to protect you. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health 2002 (COSHH) covers this situation. Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations your employer must:
- Assess the risk posed to you by the chemicals they ask you to use (Reg. 6);
- Prevent or control your exposure to the risk (Reg. 7);
- Ensure that control measures to achieve protection are properly used (Reg. 8);
- Maintain, examine and test the control measures (Reg. 9);
- Monitor your exposure to the chemicals they ask you to use (Reg. 10);
- Provide health surveillance (Reg. 11);
- Provide information, instruction and training relevant to your exposure and what they are doing to control it (Reg. 12).
What does this mean in practice, in the middle of a pandemic when everyone is telling you that you must constantly clean the workplace and use chemicals to do so? Well, your employer should be carrying out a risk assessment on the measures to control the spread of the virus, but they must also comply with the duties they would have had even if there was no pandemic. If your employer asks you to use a substance that is hazardous to your health, or has introduced a substance that is hazardous to your health, they must still comply with COSHH. Even if they previously did comply with COSHH, they should be reviewing their documentation when anything new is introduced, such as new chemicals or deep cleans.
In order for your employer to comply with COSHH they should be:
- Carrying out a full and proper risk assessment on the deployment and use of the chemicals you use to see how and when they will be used and the risks arising from this use;
- Preventing you from being exposed to the chemicals if at all possible, so allowing those in the workforce to work from home, thereby avoiding the issue of increased cleaning frequency;
- If your exposure to chemicals cannot be avoided it must be controlled, such as providing you with adequate masks and gloves (which also should not contain any substances hazardous to you), safe systems of work and minimising the exposure to any liquids, dusts and gases from the chemical mixtures;
- Any measures in place, such as safe systems of work, masks and gloves provided should be reviewed to ensure that they are doing the job of protecting you and not ripping or failing in any way and the mask is adequate to stop inhalation of gases;
- Monitoring your use of the chemicals;
- Asking about how your skin is and if you have any respiratory symptoms when using the chemicals to make sure any issues are quickly identified and any damage can be stopped;
- Providing you with information on what is in the chemicals that you use, what might cause you problems, what those problems might be, such as dermatitis or asthma, and what you should be doing to protect yourself and how to report issues you have.
Unfortunately, many employers prior to the pandemic had significant failings in their understanding of the application of COSHH. The pandemic provided an excellent opportunity for employers to get to grips with this legislation but many have simply rushed out to buy whatever they thought they needed to make workplaces ‘Covid Safe’ and will have failed to carry out any of their duties under COSHH. If they have failed in their duties to you, and you have developed dermatitis or asthma as a result of using chemicals at work, you may have a claim against your employer.
For a no obligation discussion, please contact me directly via kevin.digby@GAsolicitors.com or by calling 01752 203500