Tuesday, October 3, 2017

What's in your closet? DIY chemical inventory

Lots of organizations have chemicals hidden away in closets—cleaning products, landscape products, paints, equipment oils and solvents—some old, some duplicates because no one knew you already had some, quite a bit of them more toxic than is really needed. So how to you get a handle on what you have?

The process of cataloging and assessing your chemicals is called a chemical inventory. If you're a big operation, you might want to invest in software or a consultant to do it. But the process described below is a reasonable way for small businesses and service organizations to do it yourself.

Why do it

  • Clean out old chemicals
  • Consolidate supplies so no one reorders something you already have
  • Improve employee safety and reduce workplace hazards
  • Make sure you are complying with OSHA regulations
  • Identify products for which you want to seek safer alternatives

Tips for doing it

  • Do it as a team with staff. Wander around together in one another's work area and open closet doors. Keep asking, What's in here? What do you use that for? Keep it light-hearted. You don't want anyone to feel ashamed. But you do want employees to be aware of and feel responsible for what's in their work area.
  • Be sure you have all the appropriate safety equipment based on what you know you have. This may include gloves, protective eyewear, etc. Bring a cart to gather up all the chemicals you decide to get rid of. Find out where you can safely dispose of any old product. If something is not in its original container, label it to the best of your ability and dispose of it.
  • Find out where the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) are kept. You're required to have these available and up to date in case of a spill or accident. Doing this chemical inventory will reveal any gaps.
  • Decide what you do not want to include in the inventory. You probably don't need to count every bottle of Whiteout or Expo marker. 

How to do it

1. Log what you find on a spreadsheet as you walk around the workplace. (See the Sample Chemical Inventory Spreadsheet we have provided for your use. See partial image below.)

In general, you want to gather this information:
  • Product name.
  • Where it's stored. (If you sort by product or ingredient, you may find you have small quantities all over the place.)
  • Active ingredients. (Both the name of the chemical and since the same chemical may be called different things, the standard 'CAS number')
  • Quantity. (Since some products will be fluid and others may be powder or solid, you need a way to compare these different units. On our spreadsheet, we provide a crude way of doing this that is usually adequate: count gallons and pounds as roughly equivalent. If you have a 55 gallon drum, that's likely to be a bigger issue than a a few ounces of something else. You'll multiply this quantity or volume by estimated toxicity in the spreadsheet.)
  • What it's used for. (This is helpful because you can then sort by, for example, 'cleaning carpets.' You may find that different products are used in different buildings. You may be able to save money by purchasing a larger quantity of one and switch to the most benign alternative.)
  • Comments/Notes. (You might note the condition of the product if the can is rusting or if the product is clearly old and likely no longer any good. Janitors may complain of lung or skin irritation.)
2. Estimate toxicity. After you've logged all the chemicals, gather the MSDSs and use them to estimate the toxicity of each product. (Our spreadsheet includes factors like flammability and known or suspected risks to workers, the public, and the environment (including carcinogens, teratogens, etc.) These should be described in the MSDSs or the Scorecard website mentioned below.

3. Combine and score each product. If you found the same product in different locations, combine them into one row, one quantity. Then score each product based on quantity and toxicity. In our spreadsheet, we add up the points for each of the hazards (on a 0-4 scale) and multiply it by the quantity to get a rough score. A higher score is bad...more toxic and more of it.

4. Analyze the spreadsheet. By sorting by different columns, you can find out if:

  • You have the same product in multiple locations (search by product)
  • You use different products for the same purpose (search by use)
  • There are safer alternatives to what you are using (search by score and investigate alternatives high-scoring products)
  • You need a better way to monitory your inventory (search by product and then location)
  • You can reduce the hazardous waste on site, reducing costs associated with handling and regulations (sort by score)
5. Take action. Your actions might include:
  • Creating gray-lists (chemicals you want to phase out) and black-lists, chemicals now banned from purchase. 
  • Standardizing purchasing protocols and storage locations.
  • Finding safer alternatives to high-scoring products.
  • Seeking vendors with green products or services.
  • Getting to root causes. Why are things getting dirty? Do carpets require nastier products to clean than hard surfaces and if so, why not pull the carpet? Could mulch reduce weeds and build soil. Where are the critters getting into the building?


You can google "green _[function]___" or "environmentally preferable ___" to find guidelines and products in a wide variety of functions from cleaning facilities, pest control, and auto maintenance.

You can add your industry to the search if you have special needs or requirements.  For example, a search for "green cleaning" and "hotels" will reveal good advice from Connecticut.

Here are a few links to get you started.

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