Women and men who clean for a living are disproportionately exposed to chemicals in cleaning products due to their use of these products day in and day out. Cleaning workers experience higher rates of certain illnesses, which may be due to exposure to chemicals in cleaning products on the job. In addition, workers currently have little access to information on the chemicals in the products they use every day. Mandated disclosure of ingredients in institutional cleaning products is needed to protect the health of cleaning workers.
Workers Lack Access to Critical Information
Workers have little access to information on the chemicals used in institutional cleaning products. Although Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) are required to list the ingredients in the product that pose an occupational hazard as determined by the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard, the remaining ingredients are not required to appear on the product label or any other accompanying material. Importantly, there are other potentially harmful ingredients that may not be listed on the MSDS for the following reasons:
- The harmful chemical is present in an amount below the threshold required for reporting on a MSDS.
- The chemical is of emerging concern, meaning that it has not yet been classified by a governmental body as hazardous, and the manufacturer has not otherwise determined it to be hazardous. Phthalates, linked to reproductive harm, are an example of a class of chemicals of concern that are usually not listed on a MSDS.
- The chemical identity is considered a trade secret.
Health Impacts of Cleaning For a Living
Women who are exposed to cleaning products on the job are suffering health effects. For example, women who clean for a living have much higher rates of asthma, and women janitors have a significantly higher chance of having a child with a birth defect than many other common occupations. Men’s reproductive health may also be impacted. One study found male janitors had a significantly higher risk of having a child born with Down Syndrome.
Janitorial workers in general experience some of the highest rates of occupational asthma, twice the rate of other workers. A study in four states—California, Massachusetts, Michigan, and New Jersey— found that 12 percent of work-related asthma cases were associated with exposure to cleaning products. The overwhelming majority of the janitors did not have asthma before they started working in the industry. In one study, the risk of work-related asthma was found to be significantly higher in male laundry workers compared to other occupations.
Chemical injuries in janitors are common. A study of Washington state worker’s compensation claims found that six out of every 100 janitors are injured by chemicals every year, including serious burns to the eyes or skin. Occupational exposure to detergents and disinfectants has been associated with increased rates of irritant contact dermatitis, a common form of chronic skin rash. Hand dermatitis is reported in 10-20% of cleaning workers. Severe hand dermatitis can be debilitating and has been associated with early retirement from cleaning work and the need for disability payments.
Cleaning workers have a right to know what chemicals are in the products they are using:
- Ingredient information is critical for preventing injuries and for diagnosing health issues.
- Without disclosure of ingredients, researchers are unable to appropriately assess workers’ exposure to chemicals, hampering their ability to fully assess the health impacts of cleaning product use.
Disclosure of ingredients in institutional products should be multilingual and include information in Spanish given the large proportion of Hispanics working in this industry. Janitorial and other cleaning jobs are among the most prevalent occupations for Hispanics in the United States, especially among Hispanic women. According to the US Department of Labor, approximately thirty percent of cleaning and maintenance workers are Hispanic .