News & Events

Newton Wellesley RNs address hazards of environmental cleaning chemicals

Process covered in bargaining unit’s newsletter

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
April 2007 Edition

By Nora Watts, RN

So the floor on the unit is being stripped, and suddenly you can’t quite catch your breath … Been there? Done that? You are not alone. Last fall bargaining unit members from Usen 4 contacted their MNA representative to report headaches and wheezing during floor stripping and waxing procedures. Both patients and nurses were experiencing symptoms during the procedure. The nurses had made several attempts to get help from the supervisor and nurse manager prior to contacting the MNA, and on one particular evening the cleaning procedure was halted.

After the contact was settled, I met with occupational health and members of management to discuss the nurses’ concerns. At that meeting the hospital agreed to require HEPA filter fans to absorb fumes during stripping and waxing procedures. They did not agree to provide time off to nurses affected by the restripping process, and they also did not agree to change any of the products that were used.

It was stated that the stripper used the same ingredients as contained in recommended “green products.” It was also stated that other “green products.” that had been tried by the hospital were less effective, required more manpower and needed to be repeated more often. Management added that a number of cleaning products in use at NWH have been reduced in an effort to reduce hazardous exposure.

Occupational asthma is listed as a high priority concern by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). It is implicated in about 15 percent of all disabling cases of asthma according to the government agency. Health care workers are listed as one of the major groups affected by occupational asthma. Latex has been implicated as a causative agent in reactive airway disease, particularly in the health care setting. As a result, legislation to limit latex use has been pursued.

Environmental concerns within our bargaining unit are not new. Since hearing from Usen 4, nurses from the ED, OB, Tanger 4 West, Pain Service and the Infusion Center have come forward to report longstanding concerns. What should you do if you experience a problem? First, if you have an acute episode at work, immediately notify the charge nurse and supervisor. Obviously, if you can’t breathe get out of the area. Even in instances where you do not go to employee health or the ED, notify employee health and your union rep. The only way to get the hospital to address the problem is to report, report, report! Fill out incident reports and send them to the occupational health department. Report to anyone who will listen (and, actually, you should also report to those who WON’T listen)! Be sure to note any ill affects from these exposures that you identify in patients or that your patients and visitors may have mentioned to you.

The collective bargaining committee has regularly placed environmental issues on its meeting agendas, and the nurses at Newton Wellesley recommend that other bargaining units do the same. Contact from members and documentation are essential in the efforts to protect the health and safety of our colleagues and patients.

An excellent resource for more information on hazardous environmental cleaning agents—as well as how they can be replaced with safer alternatives—is the publication Risks to Asthma Posed by Indoor Heath Care Environments: A Guide to Identifying and Reducing Problematic Exposures. It is available at