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In 2019, the British Cleaning Council (BCC) reported that the UK cleaning industry employs over 700,000 people and contributes over £24 billion to the UK economy. Cleaners are often categorised by working in one of two groups: commercial cleaning or in-house (domestic) cleaning.
Over 3,000 serious accidents involving cleaners are reported to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) each year. Under-reporting means that this figure is likely to actually be much higher. Cleaners are exposed to a number of risks on a daily basis, including exposure to hazardous substances.
Dermatitis among professional cleaners is common. Of the 875 estimated new cases of work-related contact dermatitis reported by dermatologists in 2019, 42% were among men, and 58% among women. High rates of “wet work”, that is, work which requires repeated exposure to or immersion in water, and also exposure to a wide variety of chemicals, appear to be the main causes.
Many cleaning chemicals contain a variety of ingredients that may be toxic and health-threatening if touched, swallowed or inhaled, causing burns, poisoning or dermatitis.
What is COSHH?
The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002 are a set of legal directives that require employers to control those substances which present any kind of health risk in and around your workplace.
The control of substances part of COSHH includes any form of hazardous material, including:
- Biological agents such as bacteria and viruses .
The hazardous to health part of COSHH includes damage to:
- Internal organs.
- Central nervous system.
- The risk of injury due to combustion or explosion.
COSHH training laws and regulations
Under the COSHH Regulations, employers and workplaces must provide information, training and equipment to mitigate risk and injury, and employees must ensure they follow protocols. This often includes formal training, including the COSHH training course.
Employers have a number of key responsibilities regarding COSHH laws.
- Exposure – Employers must prevent or control exposure to hazardous substances. This can include the provision of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) where necessary.
- Control measures – Implement control measures around hazardous substances and ensure these are maintained and kept up to date, in full working order and clean where appropriate.
- Instruction – Provide employees with information, instruction and training around working with hazardous substances.
- Procedures – Having procedures in place to deal with accidents and emergencies relating to hazardous substances.
- Surveillance – Ensure employees exposed to hazardous substances are under adequate surveillance.
- Risk assessments – Carry out COSHH risk assessments.
- Limits – Ensure the use of hazardous substances doesn’t exceed the Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL).
- Supervision – Check employees are carrying out tasks as they are supposed to.
Employees have a responsibility to ensure that tasks are carried out safely to ensure no harm comes to themselves or others.
- Safety – Assist their fellow employees in creating a safe working environment. This can include supporting colleagues to abide by the regulations specific to their workplace.
- Procedures – Follow the procedures put in place to stop accidents and overexposure.
- Personal protective equipment (PPE) – Wear the correct PPE including eye and noise protection. This includes ensuring all PPE is stored correctly in the appropriate place.
- Reporting – Report and record all accidents, spillages and breakages.
- Check-ups – Attend medical check-ups when required to.
- Cleaning – Use cleaning and showering facilities provided by employers in line with official procedures.
- Training – Keep up to date with training provided by employers.
Many substances can harm health but, if used properly, it is rare that they do. However, if you or your employer fail to control their use, you or your employer could be guilty of offences under Section 33 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act (HSWA) 1974.
The maximum penalty in the magistrates’ court is an unlimited fine and a prison sentence of up to six months. In the Crown Court, the maximum penalty is an unlimited fine or imprisonment for up to two years.
Why do cleaners require COSHH training?
If you use hazardous substances in your workplace there may be a chance that you are putting your own and other people’s health at risk if these substances are not transported, used and stored correctly. Due to the nature of your job, cleaners consistently work with hazardous substances.
The cleaning fluids that are regularly used include, for example:
- Floor, toilet, window, glass, oven cleaners.
- Antibacterial cleaners.
- Rug, carpet, upholstery cleaners.
- Mould and mildew removers.
- Drain cleaners.
- Air fresheners.
If used incorrectly or you suffer exposure to them, some of these substances could cause asthma attacks or cancer. Many could damage the skin or eyes, and some could cause serious long-term damage to the lungs. The effects can be immediate, such as burns, dizziness or stinging eyes, or they can take many years to develop, such as lung disease. Many of the long-term or chronic effects cannot be cured once they develop.
Exposure is when a substance is taken into your body.
This can happen when you:
- Breathe fumes, dust or a mist.
- Have skin contact.
- Break your skin with a scratch, cut or accidental injection.
- Swallow something.
Although some substances might be harmless alone, they might become hazardous when combined with something else, so it’s also good to be trained about potentially dangerous combinations, and what could happen if they are mixed.
COSHH also applies to the storage and transportation or hazardous substances, so through training you will also know that you are handling them in the right way at all times, minimising the risk of accidents.
What should COSHH training for cleaners cover?
Employers are obligated under the COSHH Regulations to ensure that their employees receive any relevant information and instruction with regards to COSHH training and every hazardous substance they may come into contact with. This training and instructing is a step in the COSHH Regulations, it is vitally important and all cleaning staff should be trained before any contact with the chemicals is made.
Employers of cleaners should be providing at the very least basic training in COSHH principles and awareness to enable them to avoid situations that would put them in harm’s way, keeping them safe and healthy. They should make sure that their employees know why it is important that they have to work in a specific way, using the controls put into place. Employers should also make sure their employees understand that they are implementing the control measures to protect them.
More specifically, COSHH training for cleaners should cover:
An introduction to COSHH and the legislation and regulations
This enables cleaners to recognise the laws that are in place to protect themselves and others and the responsibilities that they have under these regulations.
What are COSHH data sheets?
These are basically a summary of what specific substances are being used, what particular supplier provides them (different suppliers of the same substance may use different chemicals and quantities so it is important that this information is available), the risks associated with the substance, any special measures they should take to ensure their own, and others’, safety, and give information on handling, storage and emergency measures in case of accident. Cleaners will also need to be made aware of where they can access these COSHH data sheets.
Awareness of the GB CLP chemical labelling system
This ensures that the hazards presented by chemicals are clearly communicated to cleaners through classification and labelling of chemicals. They contain hazard warning symbols; these hazard pictograms are the signs on chemical containers that make us aware of the presence of a hazardous chemical. The pictograms that are particularly relevant to the cleaning industry include:
- Black cross – Indicating the product may contain substances that are irritants and harmful, causing irritation and itching. In extreme cases, they may cause skin rashes, and fumes can cause issues with the respiratory tract.
- Skull and crossbones – This is the symbol for toxic substances which can cause chronic damage or even death if swallowed, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin.
- Flames – Flammable substances are commonly associated with pressurised containers, and the propellant gases within may cause issues.
- Exclamation mark – Hard surface cleaners of any concentrate strength will have the exclamation mark.
- Liquid drips onto skin or surface – The majority of disinfectants and sanitisers carry the corrosive symbol.
What risks have been assessed and the measures in place to mitigate the risks. These are customary with all kinds of health and safety and the workplace, with an added obligation to take care assessing not only what substances are used, but also what cleaning practices are applied to reduce and manage risks as best as possible. Cleaners also need to be aware of where these risk assessments are kept.
Safe handling and usage practices
This will include the transportation of substances, diluting and or mixing substances, decanting substances from one container to another, and the correct use of substances in cleaning various surfaces and objects.
Cleaners will need to know the incident and issue reporting procedures and who the nominated person(s) is, that is the person who is in charge and who oversees the outworking of the regulations and who checks practical things like correct stock and storage.
Cleaners need to be aware that things must be safely stored with correct signage and locks to ensure that they cannot be mistakenly accessed. This includes additional requirements for more dangerous substances. This is important for preventing spillages and fumes from leaking.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
These include the actual clothes and workwear worn by cleaners, whether special gloves and aprons, or more specialist overalls and shoe-covers.
Cleaners need to be aware of the clear procedures for recording and reporting accidents, and having information about the first aid facilities available, with a particular emphasis on any special requirements for individual cleaning substances.
Disposal of rubbish
Cleaners will need to know the correct way and means to dispose of rubbish and refuse, making sure it is correctly stored and sealed so that it is kept separate to ‘normal’ rubbish if required, and including the safe disposal of the actual substance containers.
Personal health and safety surveillance, and first aid
Cleaners need to be aware that COSHH-related hazards may possibly affect them over a prolonged period of time, so they need to keep an eye on any health issues they develop that are related to their work. They should also be trained on good practice hand care, washing hands properly, drying them thoroughly and the regular use of skin creams, also about the procedures to remove contamination promptly.
They should be trained about keeping the workplace well ventilated. Cleaners, particularly those who are lone works, should also receive training on how to deal with and apply first aid to any accidents that may occur in the workplace.
How often do cleaners have to take COSHH training?
For cleaners, continual COSHH training is important. Employers should keep in mind that with every change they make in the workplace, whether that is a change of product used or change of working practices and procedures, new training is required. In many instances an update briefing is all that is required.
However, it is good working practice to ensure that all employees update their full COSHH training on a regular basis to ensure compliance with the legislation and regulations. Employers should also be keeping COSHH training records to quickly and easily see who has been trained in what, and to help in identifying any training gaps.
Ensuring that cleaners are trained for COSHH in cleaning will ensure that everyone understands how to work safely and with as little exposure to hazardous substances as possible.
Do all cleaners need COSHH training?
The answer is, if they use chemicals with a CLP symbol(s) on (see above), then they should be trained in the safe use of the chemical(s). A lot of cleaning chemicals now have one of the above CLP symbols. This means, in practice, commercial cleaning operations do need to provide their staff with training in the safe use and handling of the chemicals they are expected to use.
Self-employed commercial and domestic cleaners should for their own safety and that of their clients, undertake awareness training in the safe handling, storage and use of cleaning chemicals such as:
- What the product is for and how to use it.
- Any risks to yourself or others.
- Any personal protective equipment (PPE) you will need to use.
- COSHH risk assessments.
- How to correctly dilute the chemicals safely.
- How to store and transport the chemicals safely.
Under the COSHH Regulations, even if you don’t have employees, but you take hazardous substances to other people’s premises, then all parts of the COSHH Regulations apply to you, except those about monitoring and health surveillance. Even small quantities of chemicals can lead to ill health or injury.
Your COSHH assessment should look at your processes, how the chemicals will be used with other substances and any reactions that might happen. The controls you put in place should eliminate or reduce the risk of possible accidents, incidents and emergencies involving hazardous substances.
All of these hazards in cleaning can be minimised, if not eliminated, if employers comply with their responsibilities under the COSHH Regulations and ensure that their employees receive COSHH training in order to keep themselves and others safe.