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The sweet smell of success

September 19, 2010
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Ask any custodian what the worst part of his/her job is and odds are they will tell you it is floor stripping and finishing.

Although many in-house facility staffs may be using products labeled “Low Odor” or “Low Volatile Organic Compounds” (VOCs), these floor strippers and finishes still release a large amount of VOCs into the air as they dry.

And, these VOCs are potentially dangerous, not only to building occupants, but to cleaning and maintenance staff themselves.

VOCs, which are added to the floor finish to speed up the drying process, are known respiratory irritants.

Cleaning and maintenance staffs are exposed to high levels of VOCs — especially when buildings have not been properly ventilated — during the stripping and finishing of floors.

In schools, for example, this can also result in staff and students being exposed to high levels of VOCs when they return from vacations or winter break periods.

Students and staff who occupy school buildings during the academic year are considered an especially vulnerable population when it comes to VOCs.

According to the American Lung Association, asthma is one of the most common chronic diseases of childhood. And asthma, often made worse when there is exposure to respiratory irritants, is the most common cause of school absenteeism due to chronic disease.

What can in-house facility directors and administrators do to improve not only the working conditions for the employees who are actually using the products but also the indoor air quality (IAQ) of the buildings they service?

A two-pronged approach of adequate preparation and an understanding of application techniques may be all that is needed to not only strip and finish floors but to maintain, or improve, IAQ.

Adequate preparation a must
In-house facility directors and managers should consider the following when it comes to undertaking stripping and finishing projects for the floors of their buildings:

  • Include IAQ criteria in product selection. Purchase products with the lowest VOC and fragrance-free content whenever possible.
  • Consider floor finishes that last longer. The fewer number of times you have to strip and finish floors during a 12-month period, for example, the lower overall annual exposure to VOCs.
  • Review safety precautions and permissible exposure limits (PELs) on material safety data sheets (MSDSs) prior to use. Include safety information about spill clean-up procedures and proper disposal of empty containers.
  • Instruct workers on proper application techniques and safety precautions as they relate to equipment and ventilation of an area before they begin their work.
  • Inform security/administration that open windows and doors will be utilized to bring in additional ventilation to meet MSDS requirements for proper ventilation. For security purposes, ensure that all windows and doors are closed and locked at the end of the day.
  • Inform building occupants of the areas that are to be stripped and finished and post signs at plastic barriers notifying occupants that these areas are not to be entered when staff is working.
  • Use plastic sheeting from ceiling to floor to seal off hallways. Again, the goal is to contain the odors/VOCs.
  • Consider having the HVAC system run continuously with maximum fresh-air intake during the actual process and for several days following. Schools, for example, routinely shutdown or reduce HVAC operation at night, weekends, and in particular over vacation periods, as a cost-cutting measure. This practice can allow VOCs to build up to high levels that could affect occupants when they return. It also can increase the likelihood that these gases will be absorbed into porous surfaces, such as ceiling tile, only to be released at a later time.
  • Locate exhaust fans to use.

Common sense application
Common sense plays a big role when it comes to application of the products used during the stripping and finishing of floors. Consider the following:

  • Begin by sealing off air returns in the area you will be working in. This helps prevent fumes/odors from mitigating into other parts of the building.
  • Use exhaust fans and open doors and windows to help remove VOCs as you apply stripper and finish according to manufacturer’s directions.
  • Use the least amount of product necessary to do the job.
  • Use chemical-proof gloves, goggles and appropriate footwear to protect the skin and eyes.
  • Do not eat or drink in cleaning areas.
  • Keep all containers closed to prevent unnecessary evaporation of VOCs into the air.
  • Do floor stripping or finishing as early as possible during vacation periods or when the facility is not in use to allow the greatest amount of time possible for VOCs to dissipate.

Adequately preparing for your floor stripping and finishing projects and following common sense application procedures can greatly reduce worker exposures and IAQ problems for your building occupants.

As a result, there is often an increase in worker productivity and a reduction in lost worker time and workers’ compensation claims. At the same time, there are fewer student absences or building occupant complaints.

Phyllis Filoso is a veteran earth science teacher who developed chemical sensitivities as a result of renovations and mold in a school environment. She has since received IAQ certification from the International Indoor Air Quality Commission (IIAQC). Filoso is the founder of VP School Solutions, a company dedicated to providing information on best practices necessary to promote good IAQ, particularly in schools. She can be reached at

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