Health and Safety Concerns for the Dry Cleaning Industry

Ever since the mid-19th Century when Jean Baptise, the owner of a dye works in France, discovered that his tablecloth became noticeably much cleaner after his maid accidentally spilled some kerosene from a lantern on it, modern dry cleaning has been a popular method of cleaning clothes.

Many people own a few delicate items of clothing that are “dry clean only” and have used this service at least once or twice in their life. The dry cleaning industry offers ample employment opportunities, but it is important that dry cleaning workers’ pay attention to health and safety. There are a lot of specific health and safety concerns to keep in mind when it comes to dry cleaning and employees in this industry should undertake the appropriate health and safety training.

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What is Dry Cleaning?

Dry cleaning refers to any cleaning process for textiles and clothing which uses a chemical solvent to clean the material rather than using water. Most dry cleaners use Tetrachloroethylene, which is also referred to as “perc”. This chemical is useful for cleaning very intricate and delicate fabrics that would be damaged by being tumbled around inside a washing machine or a clothes dryer. The dry cleaning process is a much less labour intensive alternative to hand washing.

The Dangers of Working in Dry Cleaning

What are the hazards that are related to the dry cleaning industry? The main injuries to dry cleaning workers include slips and trips, manual handling injuries, contact with moving machinery, respiratory irritation, noise induced hearing loss, occupational dermatitis and more.

Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals

Dry cleaning workers can be exposed to hazardous chemicals through eye contact, skin absorption or inhaling vapours. “Perc” is considered a potential human carcinogen and it can cause ill health after exposure. Some of the symptoms of exposure to this chemical include kidney and liver damage, confusion, impaired memory, headaches, drowsiness and eye, nose and throat irritation. This chemical will also affect the skin and cause irritation.

Risk of Uncontrolled Fires

Dry cleaning premises are also at a high risk for uncontrolled fires. They have plenty of ignition sources, fuels and oxygen and there are a number of combustible materials on the premises including clothing, lint and other fabrics.

Ergonomic Risks

Workers in the dry cleaning industry might also suffer from ergonomic risks from the pressing, bagging and transfer of clothing – as these activities are repeated frequently throughout the day. This repetitive strain will show up in the form of pain and discomfort in the tendons, ligaments, muscles and nerves of the back, neck, shoulder, arm, wrist and hand. Another risk involved in the dry cleaning industry is hearing loss, due to working around loud machines throughout the day. This hearing loss might not be noticed right away, but is cumulative and builds up over time – causing irreversible damage.

Risk of Infection

Also, sometimes the laundry that is being cleaned is contaminated with human bodily fluids, such as blood, sweat, urine and even vomit or faeces. For example, linens from a hospital might be sent to a laundry facility to be cleaned. These body wastes could post a risk of infection and could potentially make laundry and dry cleaning workers ill, or even transit diseases such as HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C or other illnesses. There are very important health and safety regulations to follow when it comes to laundering fabrics that are stained or soiled with bodily fluids.

The Importance of Health & Safety in Dry Cleaning

Workers in the dry cleaning industry should pay close attention to health and safety concerns, especially due to the number of risks inherent in this type of work. All workers should undergo the appropriate health and safety courses relevant to their career, so that they are aware of the risks and know how to implement the relevant safety procedures.

How Can We Make Dry Cleaning Safer?

Although there are a number of risks associated with working in the dry cleaning industry, there are many ways that we can make this job safer. In addition to taking health and safety courses, the dry cleaning environment and working procedures can be improved in order to make things safer. Here are some of the important things that employers and employees can do to prevent injury, illness and death among dry cleaning workers:
  • All shop owners should install dry cleaning machines that are equipped with vapour recovery systems, which will reduce the amount of “perc” in the air. Also, ventilation can be improved to also control perc exposure.
  • Shop owners might also consider alternate methods of cleaning, such as using water or petroleum based solvents.
  • In order to reduce the risk of repetitive strain injuries due to pressing, folding, etc. workstations can be resigned in a more ergonomic way to avoid awkward postures and excessive turning and reaching.
  • Also, workers should be given frequent breaks and should be rotated so that they don’t have to repeat the same task multiple times.
  • Using newer versions of petroleum-based solvents and machines will be safer than traditional versions, reducing the risk of fires and explosions.
  • Shops should pay attention to fire codes and make sure that they comply with them throughout the entire building.
  • Infected linen containing bodily fluids should be handled according to the appropriate procedures and should be kept in sealed, clearly marked plastic bags.
  • In order to prevent noise induced hearing loss, workers should be provided with earphones or other protective equipment to wear when they are working near to noisy machines. If possible, the loud machines should be far away from the area where workers spend most of their time.
  • To avoid dermatitis and skin irritation, workers should wear gloves (PPE) when handling detergents and dry cleaning chemicals. Workers should be given access to a hand washing station where they can clean up after work.

These are just a few important health and safety tips relevant to the dry cleaning industry. With the right procedures and preparation, workers in this industry can be healthy and safe from harm.

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