Saturday, April 24, 2004

Hidden Workers, Hidden Hazards

When we write about the hazards facing immigrant workers in this country, we usually write about fatalities. Deaths are easier to count, -- or, said another way, they're harder to hide -- than illnesses. Even for non-immigrant workers, work-related illnesses generally go unrecognized, undiagnosed and unreported.

MassCOSH released a report earlier this week that brings light to these problems. According to its Health and Safety Assessment of Commercial Cleaning Services, Inc.,
A survey of janitors and cleaning staff working for a Brighton firm found widespread injuries and health problems that workers trace to unsafe working conditions and poor training, according to the nonprofit Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.

Workers reported skin burns from toxic polishes they applied wearing porous latex gloves supplied by their employer, Commercial Cleaning Services. They also were required to do metal polishing in unventilated elevators with the doors closed, and to handle sharp objects, dead animals, blood, and other potential biohazards without safety gloves, according to the report.
Commercial Cleaning Inc. of Brighton employs the janitors who clean the Ritz/Millenium and several other sites.

The workers reported using such chemicals as a metal polish containing the central nervous system toxin 2-butoxyethanol and the asthma-causing agent ethanolamine; chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite); and a brass polish containing ammonia.

More than three quarters of workers surveyed had received no training on safe use of chemicals. Some containers storing the chemicals had no labeling or were improperly labeled and workers were not provided with proper personal protective equipment, such as impermeable gloves and safety goggles.Training, labeling and availability of Material Safety Data Sheets are all requirements of OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard.
“Virtually every one of the janitors we spoke to suffered from health problems such as respiratory problems, dizziness, rashes, and headaches, that they believe are connected to their jobs” said MassCOSH Occupational Health Specialist Isabel Lopez. “We’ve confirmed that there are serious hazards. Now, it’s time for Commercial Cleaning to act responsibly.”

Commercial Cleaning Inc. of Brighton employs the janitors who clean the Ritz/Millenium and several other sites. MassCOSH surveyed 47 of the 140 janitors who work for Commercial Cleaning after receiving complaints by several janitors that their workplace health concerns were being ignored by the cleaning company’s management. The report’s findings show 83% of workers surveyed reported exposure to hazardous chemicals such as a metal polish that contains both an asthma-causing agent, ethanolamine, and the central nervous system toxin 2-butyoxethanol.
Commerical Cleaning management is reportedly reading the report before responding.

Copies of the report are available from MassCOSH.