Buffalo Wild Wings Chemical Mixing Death, 4 Ways You Can Avoid Tragedy on Your Cleaning Sites

December 1, 2021

Before the all-consuming crisis that is Covid; way back in November of 2019, some of you may remember a heartbreaking article that splashed across headlines. Detailed in an article from US News, a Buffalo Wild Wings General Manager tragically died after being exposed to toxic fumes from cleaning agents.  

This abruptly brought our generally ignored profession into the national spotlight.  I fielded a couple calls from worried managers wondering, 

“Do we have that chemical in our closet?”  

“How are you preventing that from happening here?”  

But by and large, our customers were silent.  I couldn’t tell if it was because they had confidence in us and our processes, or if, more likely, it was not even on their radar.  

As I read the article, I was dismayed at all the processes that were just not in place to protect those workers.   There were at least 6 critical errors, accidents and/or omissions I quickly identified as I skimmed that article that led to this incident:  

  1. Unsafe Chemical Handling: A non-diluted, potentially caustic chemical was spilled 
  1. Improper Spill Remediation: Said chemical was not cleaned up appropriately
  1. Non-Reporting of Potential Danger: The spill was not documented to inform other workers of potential danger
  1. Unsafe Chemicals Stocked Without Warnings: A second, counter-indicated chemical was kept in the building and used later
  1. Improper Reporting of Incident: An employee was overcome by the chemical reaction between acid and bleach and fled.
  1. Improper Response to an Incident: A manager attempted to squeegee the reacting chemical out of the building and was overcome.

Sadly, 13 staff and restaurant goers were sickened and the manager, unfortunately died in his attempt to clear the area. 

The safety of our workers is always first and foremost in my mind.  I quickly linked the article to all employees in our group chat and printed a copy for discussion at our pre-shift meeting that evening.  

First, of course my heart went out to everyone involved. But I was also worried for my own staff. Was the Safety Program all of our staff completed before working on their own enough?  

Could our policies and procedures withstand a series of overlooked steps, forgotten guidelines and unfortunate accidents?  

Like many of you when tragedy strikes our industry, I took the time to review our site lists and training procedures. Here’s a review of what we were doing well and here are some places we took steps to improve. 

  • All employees complete a Safety Training Course that is reviewed and updated before each class within the first month of employment.  

I know what you’re thinking — But Mrs.  Hunt!  That’s not safe!  Put employees through orientation and safety training BEFORE they start working!  

Stay with me here. Our new hires work “tethered” to an experienced staff member for the first two weeks at the very least. If the pair runs out of a supply and have to go get more,  the new hire is not left by themselves to work unsupervised.  Newbies and experienced workers go together to learn where those supplies are to restock — and to see how bad it sucks when you forget things. 

Because it’s a tough job, in a field with high turnover, we didn’t do formal training right off the bat. One, because until you’ve done this job you have no idea what I’m talking about when I reference “bright work” and “gross filth”: and two, we’ve literally had people work one day and ghost. Or collect one paycheck and ghost.  Cleaning is very polarizing.  Some people REALLY dislike it.  I hate to invest the time into training for naught. So, new team members are assigned to work side-by-side with an experienced team member for every shift until they have completed Orientation and Safety Training and gotten through their probationary period.  Those assignments are made at the pre-shift team meeting and agreed upon by all parties involved. So, ideally, the experienced team member would prevent such a slip up. All supervisors and experienced staff are involved with the training and supervision of new hires. We discuss their progress before, during and after each shift. 

I realized after the Buffalo Wild Wings incident that this wasn’t good enough.

Change #1:  We give each new hire a half page bullet point abbreviated policy hand out.  First point on this list?  NEVER MIX CHEMICALS with a detailed listing of the dangerous ones and how to react.

  • Bleach, unfortunately, is ubiquitous.  It’s present in the not so obvious powders, sprays, pastes, and in the obvious things like Clorox or Tilex.  I never believed, no matter how much I object to the everyday use of bleach, that we would be able to rid all of our job sites of bleach containing chemicals.  People love their bleach.  While we do stock bleach containing products, they are not stored with the general use chemicals and must be specially obtained.  Just say no to bleach spots on carpets, uniforms and upholstery, amiright?  

However, we as a company do not purchase, stock or allow any ammonia or acid containing products that could interact with bleach to remain on our jobsites to reduce the chance of chemical interaction. 

After taking a look under our customers’ sinks at the supplies they stock themselves, I realized this too was not good enough.

Change #2:  In every storage room, under every sink, on every jobsite, in our office, anywhere there was even a remote possibility of bleach being present, we posted laminated signage detailing the dangers of mixing chemicals and more importantly what to do if it happens. 

  • SDS folders are maintained in hard copy on every job site, and also in digital form within our App, Virtuosity. But, really, beyond being OSHA chemical compliant, would anyone who had not recently been through Safety Training know how to use these?  We cover SDS interpretation during Orientation as well as Safety Training.  How much of that knowledge sticks though when they are not used every day?

I wondered if there was more to be done here as well.

Change #3:  In addition to hard copy SDS for all of our chemicals I attached a brief  summary organized alphabetically by chemical name to the front of the SDS folder listing dangerous interactions and what specifically to do in case of chemical emergency.  This same summary was uploaded to the SDS section within our App, Virtuosity.

  • Our pre-shift meeting is quick but so important.  In the 15 minutes prior to shift start, we have a brief get together.  We discuss any changes or communications from the customer.  Cleaning crew Team Member concerns including call-offs, upcoming holidays, vacations.  Challenges they might encounter and how to overcome them.  And sometimes, a pertinent Safety topic.  For the most part, these topics were chosen at random either by something that happened, an article I read, or by current events — inclement weather, parking lot security, end of shift building security, equipment safety related to what they were using that evening just to name a few.  

I realized the random nature of the safety topics was a missed opportunity to relate important information.

Change #4:  I developed a rotating schedule of daily Safety topics to be sure that both current events and relevant work related topics were covered as well as a daily review of policy from both our Orientation and Safety Training courses.  Rather than have a set schedule of:  Monday we talk about chemicals, Tuesday we talk about personal safety, etc. we decided upon a rotating format.  Some of our workers were part time.  If it was a set schedule, the person who never worked Mondays would miss all of the chemical safety.  

These are some of the changes we made to better protect our workers daily. This is what worked for us in our situation.  What type of changes or reviews of procedure did you institute based on the Buffalo Wild Wings or any other cleaning related news story?  We’d love to hear your story below.  

Our custom designed app called Virtuosity made it easy to put all this information right in our employees hands.  Now available to the public for download, both Facility Managers and Building Service Contractors alike can demonstrate their great technical skill and make all that you work so hard to do look oh so easy.  

© Mrs. Hunt and What Your Cleaning Lady Knows, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mrs. Hunt and What Your Cleaning Lady Knows with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.