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Increased use of disinfectants, cleaners, and sanitizers during COVID-19

What is the potential risk?

As part of their COVID‑19 safety plans, most employers regularly use cleaners, disinfectants, and sanitizers to help reduce the spread of the virus that causes COVID‑19. The workers using these products are often unfamiliar with their hazards and risks.

Workers can be exposed to hazardous chemicals if they are using inappropriate products or if the products are prepared or applied incorrectly. For example, the products may not be diluted properly. They may be applied using aerosolizing methods (spraying or fogging) that are not suitable for the product. In some cases, residues left on surfaces may cause skin irritation.

Disinfectants recommended for the virus that causes COVID‑19 often contain chemicals that can cause adverse health effects. This is a particular problem when using concentrated solutions. The following ingredients should be cause for concern:

  • Concentrated hydrogen peroxide, hydrochloric acid, and sodium hypochlorite cause severe skin burns. They may also cause eye damage and respiratory irritation.
  • Didecyldimethylammonium chloride (DDAC) causes severe skin burns and eye damage.
  • Glutaral (glutaraldehyde) is an upper respiratory tract irritant. It may cause respiratory tract and skin allergies.
  • Peracetic acid is hazardous at low concentrations. It can cause severe skin burns and eye damage. It is an upper respiratory tract, eye, and skin irritant.
  • Phenol irritates the upper respiratory tract and causes lung damage. It also impairs the central nervous system. It is absorbed through the skin.
  • Quaternary ammonium compounds (QUATs) are respiratory irritants. They have been associated with the exacerbation of asthmatic symptoms.

How can I reduce the risk in my workplace?

As an employer, you need to know if this risk may be present in your workplace. You must regularly inspect your workplace and ensure your safe work procedures and practices control the risk.

Part 5 of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation addresses the measures used to control workers’ exposure to hazardous chemicals. You must eliminate the exposure or minimize it to below harmful levels. You can do this by implementing engineering and administrative controls and ensuring workers use personal protective equipment (PPE). Workers must also be properly trained on how to store and handle chemicals and to clean up leaks and spills.

The COVID‑19 virus can be deactivated by many cleaners and disinfectants available for household use. Health Canada lists hard surface disinfectants appropriate for this use. To reduce the risk to workers using cleaners, disinfectants, and sanitizers, you should do the following:

  • Avoid products that contain the more hazardous ingredients, such as phenols, DDAC, glutaral, and peracetic acid. Instead, select those that cause less severe health effects.
  • Choose a product that has been pre‑diluted, or use disinfectant wipes.
  • Review the product label, safety data sheet (SDS), and manufacturer’s instructions. Find out about the health and safety hazards associated with the product and how to use it safely. For some products, this information may be incomplete or not available. For example, SDSs are not required for some cleaning products regulated by the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act or disinfectants covered by the Food and Drugs Act. In addition, product labels may not include information on long‑term health effects.
  • Read the manufacturer’s instructions and product label to determine the required dilution (strength) for your use.
  • Avoid using a stronger or higher percentage solution than is recommended. A stronger solution may be more hazardous to workers and may not be any more effective.
  • Develop written procedures for the dilution and application of these products. Written procedures should include clear instructions on how to dilute, prepare, and apply the product safely. Also include the type of PPE to use and what to do in an emergency.
  • Only use spray (aerosolization) methods if a risk assessment has been conducted and the product can be applied according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Written procedures must address the safety of the worker using this method. They must also consider others present in the workplace.
  • Provide workers with the necessary PPE to safely prepare and apply the product. Eye and skin protection is typically required when working with concentrated solutions.
  • Provide workers with information about the hazards of the product they are using and training to apply the product safely.
  • Label decanted products with the product identifier and safe handling information. If applicable, include the expiry date and reference to the SDS.
  • Provide emergency washing facilities for workers who are diluting concentrated products. This is particularly important for products that can burn the skin or eyes.
  • Never mix disinfectants with cleaners, other disinfectants, or other chemicals.
  • Store these products in well-ventilated areas. Incompatible chemicals should not be stored together.

It’s important to ensure your workers understand the purpose of cleaning the workplace and to make sure they have confidence in the process. Provide current information about cleaning schedules and methods of cleaning. Remind workers they can talk to their supervisor if they have any concerns about the products they are asked to use.

Where can I find more information?

Learn more about managing risk in your workplace.

Publication Date: Jan 2022 Asset type: Risk Advisory Reference: RA 2020-07