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How To Disinfect and Use Cleaning Chemicals Safely

Toby Graham /

By now, all of us (hopefully!) know we should be washing our hands frequently, for at least 20 seconds each time, to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

But that’s only the most basic step in fighting the coronavirus, and it isn’t enough by itself to prevent transmission. In a shared working environment—or a home where one or more people are sick—items and equipment need to be disinfected. We’re talking about tables, doorknobs, cellphones, countertops, keyboards, toilets, and so on. It’s essential to clean and disinfect these and other high touch surfaces thoroughly, routinely, and safely. Otherwise, you, your workforce, your customers, or your family could be exposed to viral particles.

Worse, when cleaning materials are used incorrectly, people risk harmful and potentially fatal chemical exposure. As a recent employee death at a Buffalo Wild Wings location illustrates, dangers such as chemical mixtures and poor ventilation can have tragic consequences.

Before grabbing the Lysol wipes, familiarize yourself with these best practices for disinfecting surfaces and using cleaning chemicals safely.

1. Clean First, Then Disinfect

Cleaning and disinfecting are not the same thing. Cleaning is the first step—the physical removal of dirt and grime from a surface. Disinfecting goes a layer deeper and eliminates microscopic germs from the surface. You usually need to clean something before disinfecting it, as disinfectants are most effective on grime-free surfaces. Before you can fully disinfect a surface, be sure to remove any dirt and grime that could disrupt the function of your disinfectant.  

2. Ensure Sufficient Contact Time

You can’t simply rub down a surface, dry it immediately, and expect it to be virus-free. Most wipes, sprays, and other disinfectants have a contact time—the minimum amount of time the disinfecting agent needs to work. Contact time varies by product. It could be 30 seconds, a minute, 10 minutes, or even an hour or longer. Learn the contact time for any product you use and make sure the product remains on any surface for at least that long.

3. Always Follow the Manufacturer’s Instructions

Not every product is suitable for every disinfecting application. Some products are appropriate for only hard surfaces like glass, metals, and plastics; other products are only for porous surfaces such as carpeting and cloth. To effectively use a product, you need to know what kind of surface it was made for. Read all manufacturer’s instructions, as they may also contain information about wearing personal protective equipment or ensuring necessary ventilation when using the product.

4. Keep Your Safety Data Sheets (SDS) Handy

Every chemical on the jobsite should have an associated safety data sheet, or SDS for short (formerly called a material safety data sheet, or MSDS). Consult this information before using a product or putting it away. Section 7 of an SDS will guide on usage and storage precautions, as well as chemical incompatibility. These are especially important during a shortage, when you may have to mix and match chemicals rather than buying combinations off the shelf. It’s imperative to avoid hazardous combinations of products. The wrong mix (e.g. ammonia and bleach) could be lethal.

5. Focus on Frequently-Touched Surfaces.

This is critical when you have limited supplies. Clean and disinfect highly-touched surfaces often: doorknobs, handles, light switches, handrails, elevator buttons, faucets, and so forth. In an office setting, think of desk items such as keyboards, mice, phones, and chairs, as well as surfaces in kitchens and other common areas. For vehicles, think of the surfaces passengers and drivers touch most—handles and doors, steering wheels, seat belts, window buttons, radio buttons, turn signals, cup holders, etc.

For more COVID-19 information and guidance, visit KPA’s Coronavirus Resource Center or contact us.

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