NEW YORK NURSE: December 2008
Q.: My hospital uses many cleaning products that give off strong odors causing staff and patients to have respiratory problems and headaches. One of the nurses ended up in the emergency department with severe respiratory distress after being exposed to something the facility used on the floors. What can I do to get them to stop using these products?
A.: The odors from cleaning products come from the ingredients used to make the product. Some cleaning products use harsh and toxic chemicals to achieve their cleaning power. However, there is an increasing market for “environmentally preferable” products which have the same cleaning power with less toxic chemicals.
To start the process of improving the environment through use of less hazardous chemicals, your health and safety committee should request the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) on the cleaning products suspected to be causing problems. Under the OSHA standard for Hazard Communications and Right to Know laws employers are required to maintain an MSDS on all chemicals used in the workplace and make them available to any employee upon request. Particular attention should be paid to the section on the MSDS which details the health hazards of the product. Once the committee determines which products are in use, they should search for similar, less hazardous products. A good website for this research is: www.ogs.state.ny.us.bldgadmin/environmental/ProductsLists.html.
Next, the health and safety committee should request a meeting with the environmental facilities director to discuss the cleaning products and the effects they are having on staff and patients. Having a list of equally effective but safer products can be a valuable element in helping the facility switch to less hazardous choices. The committee should also consider placing the issue on the labor management agenda, into the environment of care committee, and on the product selection and evaluation committee (if one exists in your facility). When discussing the problem in the labor management forum, the safety committee should emphasize the lost time of affected nurses, the increased length of stay for patients, and the complaints documented from friends and family visitors. In the environment of care committee, the issue of patient safety can be stressed, as well as complaints about the quality of care in the environment created by the products.
Finally, the safety committee should ask for a commitment from the facilities management director to evaluate the less hazardous products with the goal of selecting ones to replace the known offenders. Agree on a timeline and then revisit the issue to see if further improvements should be considered in either the products selected, the way in which they are used, or other factors which can improve the environment of care.
The NYSNA EGW Program receives many inquiries each month from members who have problems in their workplaces. If you have a question about labor relations at your facility, contact your NYSNA nursing representative. If you have a question you think should be featured in this column, send it to: RNs at Work, NYSNA, 120 Wall Street, 23rd Floor, New York, N.Y. 10005.